Barry Shepherd presents the first in what is sure to be a fascinating series looking at some of the Arabian horse stars of the United Arab Emirates.
As the call to prayer was finishing, a high-pitched whistle cut the heavy summer air at dusk and there was the rumbling sound of 100 hooves galloping, swirling up a sandstorm in a vast desert as the setting sun shone dappled amber shadows on to the horses below.
This was my first scene that met me on my arrival to Abu Dhabi some 20 years ago. The mares, with nostrils flaring and tails held higher than the sails of the pearl ships that carried such important treasures to the Bedouins, came into the safety of the paddock to feed on camel milk and dates in the stone trough in the middle of a high-walled sanctuary. I remember one grey mare, so refined and delicate with eyes as black as the oil wells that gave such wealth to this country, heralded as the alpha mare. Others parted to let her walk with all the grace and elegance of a Sheikha to drink the frothy white liquid. “Who’s that?” I asked and in broken English, the reply came with a beaming smile – “That’s Batala, the Queen of the Royal Stables.” Batala means heroine,and what a hero of the breed she was.
The following spring, in 2002, at the main stables in Abu Dhabi – the most beautiful and elegant of stables where flame red and mauve bougainvillea splashed their colour on to the immaculate emerald green gardens, a showpiece owned by His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the Nation’s father and founder of the United Arab Emirates – a special gift was delivered. To this day, I remember this dainty filly with huge eyes laying in the coolness of the shade looking as delicate as any desert flower and naming her just that. The Queen had given us her Princess and RS Banafsaj was born.
Winding the clock back, Batala was herself born in the desert after the importation of her dam from the Tersk Stud in Russia, carrying her precious cargo in utero. Batala was a daughter of the much-acclaimed Naslednik (Nil x Nitochka) son, Aspirant (ex Panagia by Aswan), himself a maternal half-brother to the horse of the century, Balaton (by Menes). Batala’s dam was the wonderful Verdjinia by Nimroz (Moment x Nizina), who also sired the last Tersk-bred World Champion Monitor (ex Matritsa). Verdjinia was out of Vengria sired by Menes (Nabeg x Metropolia) and out of Nega (ex Neposeda), an Aswan (Nazeer x Yosreia) daughter and a full sister to one of the world’s most glorious mares, the immortal Nariadnaia, dam of Nariadni (by Nabeg). Batala was crowned Qatar International Champion Filly in her glory days as a show star, when breeding in the region was just a handful of farms with big dreams.
RS Banafsaj’s sire needs little introduction being the former World Junior Male Champion and premier El Shaklan (Shaker el Masri x Estopa) son, Maleik el Kheil (ex Muneera). Imported by HH Sheikh Zayed from the astute breeders of Major and Mrs Pat Maxwell of Lodge Farm in the UK, this stallion was their benchmark and sire of countless champions around the globe. With this in mind, there was no wonder that RS Banafsaj was set for greatness.
Her very first show as a yearling in 2003 coincided with the very first Ajman Show, set on the beach with a dhow boat lit up in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf behind to remind us of the country’s humble beginnings. Some of the greatest horses in the world were showcased from the farms that had sprung to life from the affluent and eager new generation of breeders. The show took RS Banafsaj to its heart and crowned her Junior Female Champion, long before a yearling championship was ever dreamt up. I remember Gigi Grasso coming to take a photo of her as a foal and saying: “everyone is in for a treat when they see this filly” and indeed they were. She trotted her way to countless victories in the Middle East and gained admirers on each and every occasion.
With the tragic passing of her breeder, HH Sheikh Zayed in 2004, the country closed its doors and mourned his death for 40 days. The nation had lost its touchstone and the Royal Stable’s future was in jeopardy. Over the next year or so, slowly and piece by piece, the country was restructured, and the most valuable of treasures from HH Sheikh Zayed vast collections were divided up and shared between his children. Horses from his beloved stud – that represented his dream and his celebrated vision to bring the original horses back to the land of their forefathers – were gifted, and each member of the family had a share in the prizes. I was still there at this sad time and it was HH Zayed’s son, HH Sheikh Hamdan, who came to the rescue. Together we formed the nucleus of Al Aryam Arabians, along with stud manager Jennifer Jennings, and managed to bring together once more the famed foundations of his stable to create what is now one of the UAE’s leading breeding studs.
RS Banafsaj has firmly etched out of the sandstone a dynasty of her very own. To this day, she looks out of the barns of the island paradise that is Al Aryam and can see an array of champions that she calls family. Her dam sadly died foaling her last gift, a filly by Gazal al Shaqab (Anaza el Farid x Kajora) in that last foaling season where the brightness of the bougainvillea sadly was not so dazzling, The foal, Al Aryam Balkeas, was hand-reared and was one of the last horses to call the Royal Stables ‘home’. Balkeas joined her sister, along with other illustrious and precious horses, and in turn produced Al Aryam Bar’ee sired by Al Bilal (Al Maraam x Bahiha), himself a gift from Ajman Stud to Al Aryam.
RS Banafsaj, when bred to Kanz Albidayer (Ajman Moniscione x DL Marielle), gave life to the multiple-champion Al Aryam Kanooz. She also produced the splendid AJ Marzan (AJ Portofino x Hed Ab Maria) daughter, Al Aryam Borooq. When bred to super-sire Marajj (Marwan al Shaqab x RGA Kouress), she gave to Al Aryam Basma. While she was never shown due to an injury as a yearling, her aptly-named daughter Al Aryam Banafsaj (by Dominic M) has caused quite a stir this year in the show arenas of the UAE and is heralded as one of the best fillies in recent years.
The success of the next generation wraps up this story of how one horse can alter the face of history and be woven into the fabric of a country where years-old values and traditions are still so relevant in this adverse time. We salute you, RS Banafsaj.
Updated March 2021: Al Aryam Banafsaj continues to shine, taking five Gold titles from five shows, including Gold Junior Female Champion at the Dubai International Arabian Horse Championships. Now owned by Ajman Stud, this filly is sure to shine, and spread the influence of RS Banafsaj even further.