The death of Prince Aly Khan last week deprived horse racing of its foremost international figure; it also deprived our times of a man of quality.
In the fields Aly Khan chose for his own he had no peers. His horses were the best, his modern paintings were the best, his manners were the best and his women were the best. Then suddenly last Thursday night, on the gentle curve of a suburban Paris street while on his way to be guest of honor at a small dinner party, Aly's life of excellence ended
He had spent the day at Longchamp race track—"Don't play my horse today, I don't feel lucky," he told a friend—and then had gone home to dress for the evening in a blue tuxedo. Ready to leave his house at 10:15, he paused to telephone French industrialist Gerard Bonnet, his dinner host, to say he would be a little late. At his side as he took the wheel of his Lancia sports car was Bettina (real name: Simone Bodin), once the most elegant fashion model of France and Aly's mistress for years. A highly intelligent woman, Bettina was accepted by Paris society and by Aly's family as well.
Driving slowly because he was breaking in the motor of his new car, Aly was near Saint Cloud race track when he crashed head-on into a Simca. Police said the Simca apparently swung into the center of the road as it rounded the curve and hit the Lancia. Bettina, Aly's chauffer (who had been riding in the back seat) and the Simca driver escaped with minor injuries, but the Lancia's shattered steering wheel broke Aly Khan's neck.
His life had been a spectacular and public one. Friends said he lived at a rate of about $3 million a year. His passion for speed, his parties, his charm, his international romances and lately his role as a diplomat were thoroughly chronicled (most recently by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in a series beginning March 23, 1959).
And his death was felt as a public loss. Crowds gathered outside his Paris house and tributes poured in from mourners of many stations of life—hairdressers and jockeys, film stars and ambassadors. The Cannes Casino posted a bulletin of his death on its door Thursday night, and a Deauville doorman told of Aly quietly slipping him 100,000 francs after learning his baby daughter had been stricken with polio. "He was like that," said a racing friend. "He would haggle for days over $100 in the price of a horse and then be incredibly generous to someone who was in trouble."
A GREAT EYE FOR HORSES
But it is the sport of horse racing that will feel his absence the most. Aly brought to racing an uncanny eye for horseflesh combined with an unequaled knowledge of bloodlines. For 30 years he used his horse sense on behalf of himself and his father, the late Aga Khan III, and the end result was the finest international racing stable in history. So astute was his judgment of horses that on four occasions he bought the long-shot winners of major stakes races just months before their victories. His memory was prodigious: recently he looked at 30 yearlings at Chantilly and recited the bloodlines of each.
He sold his horses as shrewdly and unsentimentally as he bought them, coolly dealing off Tulyar for $700,000 to the Irish National Stud soon after the horse had won the English Derby.
Through the years his far-flung stable operations prospered by following a basic principle of the Khans: breed horses internationally and you will get the best attributes of each country's breeding stock. Last year Aly Khan's racers won $281,000 in England and $700,000 in Ireland and France, both record one-year earnings for European owners.
There are now 95 horses in training under Aly Khan's green-and-red racing colors, and more than 200 brood mares and stallions on his stud farms. This $8 million array of Thoroughbreds spreads from the U.S. and Venezuela to five large breeding farms in Ireland (Gilltown, Ongar, Sheshoon, Ballymany, and Sallymount), four in France (La Coquenne, Saint Crespin, Marly-la-Ville and Lassy) and the famous racing stable at Chantilly, near Paris.
What will become of this vast racing organization? There will be no official announcement, pending a family conference and the reading of Aly's will.
But there is no reason to think the stable, like the bulk of his estate, will not go to this three children: sons Karim, 23, who is Aga Khan IV, and Amyn, 22, both from his marriage to the daughter of an English lord; and daughter Yasmin, 10, by his marriage to Rita Hayworth.
The two boys have not shared their father's interest in horse breeding and racing, an indifference which led some English and French racing people to predict that Aly's stable would be broken up and sold at auction. The buyers, they suggested sadly, probably would be Americans. ("A catastrophe!" said Robert Muller, Aly's racing manager. "European horses would soon be outclassed by descendants of Aly Khan's horses.")
There is hope, however, that this empire of racing, so patiently and brilliantly assembled, may not be permanently dissolved. The youngest of Aly's heirs, Rita's gay and spirited daughter Yasmin, seems to have developed an early fondness for horses and racing.
ALY: HE WAS DRIVING WITH UNUSUAL CARE WHEN HE WAS KILLED
BETTINA: MODELED IN HIS FASHION, SHE WAS THE LAST OF ALY'S ELEGANT WOMEN