Rags-to-riches stories are becoming rarer in big-time racing, but there could be few to match that of Marwan Koukash, a former Palestinian refugee aiming to become a Melbourne Cup winner.
As an eight-year-old whose family farm in Palestine had just been bombed, Koukash, his seven siblings and mother walked three days with no food and few possessions until they crossed the River Jordan into relative peace.
They spent three years in a refugee camp in Jordan until 1970 when they made it to Kuwait, where he threw himself into education as “the only thing that could get me out of the mess we were in”.
He moved in 1976 to the English city of Liverpool where he still lives and owns EuroMatech, the world’s biggest management and finance executive training company, a string of property developments and a stable of more than 100 racehorses.
He’s hoping one of those horses, Mount Athos, will add Melbourne Cup-winning owner to his list of achievements.
For someone whose ambition as a child was simply to survive, Koukash’s goals changed as he made his remarkable progress from shoeless Palestinian refugee to billionaire businessman.
“Every time you meet a challenge, you set yourself a new challenge,” he said on Monday.
“If I win tomorrow, I’ll set another one. You don’t just sit back and say I’ve achieved what I want. I’m an ambitious man.
“Being a refugee bloody drives you on. You end up having to work a lot harder. You have a target and you want to achieve it.
“Whatever you want in life, you’re going to have to make it, so that drove me on, and I guess in a way that came into racing as well.”
As equal second favourite at $8, Mount Athos is a good chance of adding another chapter to his driven success story.
His bank manager introduced him to racing five years ago, but he wasn’t put off when his first horse came last in his debut race as an owner.
He was determined to succeed, bought more horses and has had 300 UK winners since.
It’s a world away from where he came, but Koukash has not forgotten his route to success.
“It was a horrible experience, obviously. It was a bloody war,” he said.
“I remember it vividly. We were farmers, we were on school holidays and were playing in one of the fields and all of a sudden planes came in and were bombing everywhere. We had to leave. We gathered a little of our stuff and just walked for three days.
“But it just drives you to succeed.”