The Aga Khan III entered the turf realm in England in the 1920’s when he began to purchase well bred yearling fillies to stock his stable. He was advised by none other than The Honourable George Lambton, trainer for Lord Derby. Lambton had a very astute eye for yearlings and selected for The Aga many fillies that not only won important races, but would also lay the foundation for The Aga’s breeding enterprise. One of the earliest purchases was a grey filly by The Tetrarch out of the Sundridge mare Lady Josephine. The Aga Khan III named her Mumtaz Mahal.
Mumtaz Mahal became the darling of the turf world the following year when she displayed her blazing speed on the track. Known as “The Flying Filly” in the press, and “Mumty” to her connections, the daughter of The Tetrarch later became a foundation mare to not only The Aga Khan’s breeding establishments but to also encompass the entire Thoroughbred world. Her influence wrote volumes as to the sheer quality of Thoroughbreds in her descent. Names such as Mahmoud, Nasrullah, Royal Charger, Migoli, and Petite Etoile are direct descendants of this pivotal mare. Further down the line, the current Aga Khan IV has reaped considerable success from Mumtaz Mahal direct descendants, most notably the wonderful Shergar, and the great undefeated filly Zarkava.
Zarkava was bred by The Aga Khan in 2005 in Ireland. She is a product of many generations of Aga Khan Thoroughbred breeding. The sire of Zarkava is Zamindar, a son of Gone West out of Zaizafon by The Minstrel. Zamindar was bred, raced and stood at Juddmonte. He was a full brother to European champion two year old Zafonic. Zamindar was highly regarded and a stakes winner himself, but not at the level of his brother. However, Zamindar became the more successful sibling in the breeding shed, for among other notables he sired include Darjina, bred by The Aga Khan IV and raced by his daughter Princess Zahra. Others to include here are Zenda, Coquerelle and Timepiece.
The dam of Zarkava is Zarkasha by Kahyasi. Zarkasha was unraced but possessed a strong pedigree. She was full of generational Aga Khan breeding. Kahyasi was an Irish Derby winner bred and campaigned by the Aga Khan, while the tail female family of Zarkasha represented one, if not THE, most cherished families of Aga Khan breeding. Here is where Mumtaz Mahal comes back into the narrative because it is she that is the eighth generation mare along this fabled line. And to add more, this is the branch of the family that also includes the great Petite Etoile, who appears as the fourth dam of Zarkasha.
So Zarkava entered the world as a ninth generational descendant of Mumtaz Mahal and fifth generational descendant of Petite Etoile, with all points being bred by the Aga Khan and his ancestors.
Zarkava began her racing career carrying the Aga Khan’s green silks with red epaulettes under the expert tutelage of trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre. She made two starts as a juvenile, both races being at Longchamps, winning the Prix de la Cascade, a maiden filly race, and the group one Prix Marcel Boussac. De Royer-Dupre put her away to prepare his emerging star for the 2008 season.
Beginning again at her home track Longchamps, Zarkava took the group three Prix de la Grotte and then in spectacular fashion followed up with a record setting performance in the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (French 1000 Guineas). Among the vanquished in this race was future three time Breeder’s Cup Mile winner Goldikova.
Zarkava preferred to hang back of the field until her jockey Christophe Soumillon gave her the word to go. When that command was issued, Zarkava would jet like no other. She had an immediate accelerator, much like a Ferrari when the driver put his foot down on the gas pedal while cruising along in traffic. She again displayed this supercar like acceleration in the Prix de Diane at Chantilly Racecourse, thus winning her second classic in a row, again defeating Goldikova.
With a five for five record, and also with the turf world in awe of her eye popping way of producing her full speed in an instant, Zarkava was then given time to prepare for the biggest prize in racing, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on the first Saturday in October. A prep race prior to the big event was chosen to make sure she had no rust in her form. Back at Longchamps, Zarkava stumbled out of the starting gate in the group one Prix Vermeille, but that Ferrari like acceleration was still there when she zoomed past Dar Re Mi for another convincing victory. This was her first race at 12 furlongs and set Zarkava up perfectly for the Arc.
The pre-race build up for 87th running of the Arc was, as it always has been, intense. And as usual, a stellar field assembled for the fabled event. Among the entrants were; Duke of Marmalade and Soldier of Fortune from Aiden O’Brien’s barn; from Sir Michael Stoute’s yard came Papal Bull and Ask; Andre Fabre sent Getaway; German standouts Kamsin and It’s Gino were entered; and Youmzain and Schiaparelli from England; Vision d’Etat from France; Meisho Samson from Japan; and Cima de Triomphe from Italy. A strong field of multiple group one and classic winners made up the sixteen horse field for the 2008 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Zarkava was well back during the early running and came into the two furlong home stretch ten lengths back of the leader and covered up. As the horses in front began to put in their challenges to take the laurels, an opening finally presented itself to Soumillon and he gave Zarkava the word to go. In other words he pressed the accelerator and the filly responded as she always had. Zarkava burst through the middle of the pack and took command a furlong from the finish post at Longchamps and sped past the line two lengths ahead of Youmzain with It’s Gino another length back in third.
The Aga Khan said of Zarkava, “She is the greatest reward a breeder could have.” Zarkava’s proud breeder/owner would retire her from racing with a Cartier Award as European Horse of the Year to add to her accomplishments. She has spent most of her time at the Aga Khan’s French stud Haras de Bonneval in Normandy, but has also been a resident at Gilltown Stud in Kilcullen, Ireland. Her produce record has been set back by unfortunate tragedies to her offspring. Her first foal was a grey filly by Dalakhani named Zerkaza. Unraced, Zerkaza has produced two foals to date, which also have never raced.
Second foal from Zarkava was a bay colt by Sea The Stars named Zarkash, who unfortunately was euthanized due a severely broken leg while in training. He was never raced. Zarkava’s 2012 bay colt by Galileo was named Zarkar. He to never made it to the races because of injuries and was subsequently sold to Haras La Numancia in Argentina. He too died young after breaking a tibia in a paddock accident. He sired only one crop of 64 foals which are now two year olds at time of writing.
Zarkava was bred to Dubawi and produced another bay colt in 2013. This son became the first of her offspring to race, and he was a good one. Zarak won the Prix de Saint-Désir in his juvenile year. He took the Prix de la Croix de Chavaux at three, and was also second to Almanzor in the G1 Prix du Jockey Club and the G2 Prix Guillaume Dornano that same year. Zarak came back for a four year old campaign and captured the group one Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and finished second to Cloth of Stars in the G1 Prix Ganay. Zarak is now standing at Haras de Bonneval . His first foals arrive this year.
Another bay colt followed Zarak in 2014, this one by Redoute’s Choice. Named Zarmitan, this colt has not raced. In 2015 Zarkava produced a filly by sired by Frankel. Given the name Zarkamiya, this daughter of two unbeaten legends won twice in her two racing years. Zarkamiya earned herself black type when she took first prize in the Prix de Thiberville and a 3rd place finish in the G1 Prix Vermeille. She has now joined the Aga Khan’s broodmare colony.
While Zarkava’s foals have not lit up the track with greatness, she has nave failed to deliver a foal in each year since she retired from racing. Her 2016 colt by Invincible Spirit, named Zarkallani, is in training with de Royer-Dupre, whilst her 2017 filly Zaykava, by Siyouni, is getting ready for her racing debut possibly this year. There is also a 2018 colt by Sea The Stars and she is due to foal a son or daughter of Dubawi this year.
The breeding program of the Aga Khan is geared toward breeding for the classics. He races his own home bred stock, but not all of them due to the largess of his breeding network and the fact that this is still an expensive game to partake in. He only sells to offset costs and cull his herd, and certainly is not locked into breeding to the in fashion stallions that yearling buyers crave to buy the offspring of. The Aga Khan is also a proponent of outcross breeding and is not afraid to send his well pedigreed mares to a variety of stallions, regardless of value and sales popularity. Pedigree and conformation, racing proclivity, and individual temperament play key roles in stallion selection for mares. In simple terms, the Aga Khan breeds his horses to achieve on the track, not in the sales ring.
I find this, as does history, has always been the best course of action in not only breeding winners, but also in improving the breed to future generations. As Federico Tesio once said “The Thoroughbred is a hybrid of many breeds. Yes he is now seen as a breed upon himself, but his origins are still that of a man made type. In hybrid animals, even if highly selected, each separate character is passed on independently.” Nature cannot be rushed. She will proceed at her own pace and on her own terms.
The Aga Khan’s daughter Princess Zahra said in her speech to the Asian Racing Conference in 2016 “Along with all the usual variables that we breeders look at such as conformation, distance aptitudes, character, physical fragilities, etc., we have an explicit policy of maintaining the genetic diversity of our broodmare band. We are constantly trying new matings and sire-lines, to try to preserve our families and revive those who have gone dormant.”
This breeding philosophy and policy sums up the essence of Thoroughbred improvement. Zarkava exemplifies this. While it is romantic to know that she was a direct descendant of an immortal turf legend, passing through another such legend, Zarkava would not have been conceived without adhering to the principles of such a breeding program.
It would be a great story if Zarkava can produce a foal that became as accomplished as she was in racing. However it is unlikely she will due to her supremacy. Then again if patience is adhered to, and selective breeding to find the right combination of hereditary factors can be achieved, then a future descendent of brilliance in subsequent generations could be revealed. There are many such stories throughout turf history.
Zarkava is one of those rare athletes that take your breath away when you watch them perform. She epitomises the essence of a fast Thoroughbred. Her beautiful action, explosive acceleration, and extreme speed are rarely seen in one package. Then when you factor in her exquisite beauty and the fact that she represents nine generations of breeding from a single breeding enterprise, you have to give a nod toward her place in turf history.
The word special is an understated adjective when describing Zarkava.
(Photo courtesy of The Aga Khan Studs)
(Photo of Zarkava with Soumillon up following victory in the Arc)