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Conditions against Meydan stars

Author: Nicholas Godfrey

10/05/2018
1

Say what you like about the Kentucky Derby, but last weekend’s results at Churchill Downs will surely be taken in America as further evidence that Dubai is not the place to prepare horses for the Triple Crown. Let me be clear on this: I don’t think that’s entirely fair, as there were mitigating circumstances working against both the much vaunted Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby and Rayya in the Kentucky Oaks. However, it is impossible to deny that their performances, they beat precisely one horse home between them, did little to advertise the Meydan Classics and, by extension, the dirt surface at the UAE’s foremost venue.

The fact remains: the UAE Derby is designed as a significant prep race for the US Triple Crown, offering a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate for the winner. Yet has a single horse ever even made the frame after running in Dubai? And that is despite several tries now in the last couple of decades, from Nad Al Sheba to Tapeta to the current Meydan dirt. In the States, there remain some deeply held preconceptions about the alleged ‘bounce’ factor affecting horses who reappear quickly after a trip to Dubai. The jury is out on this one; in fact, evidence suggests this may well be a total myth. It certainly is where Europe is concerned; just look at the form of Charlie Appleby’s string since they returned to Newmarket.

North America, though, is a different kettle of fish. While Mendelssohn undoubtedly had his supporters after his spectacular UAE Derby romp, with several US trainers admitting they feared him as a serious contender, he was largely portrayed as a ‘mystery horse’. In itself, that was baffling: how mysterious can he have been? Mendelssohn was bought in the USA at public auction, he is trained in Ireland by the top trainer in the world and ridden by the man largely believed to be the world’s best jockey, and he won at last year’s Breeders’ Cup before his UAE Derby victory was beamed around the world. Come on, being insular is one thing, but he’s hardly mysterious, is he?

That said, anyone who claimed to know precisely how Mendelssohn would perform was either deluding themselves or grandstanding for effect. With that in mind, several pundits simply ruled him out of calculations, just because he had come from Dubai. As for Rayya in the Kentucky Oaks, Bob Baffert knows Dubai as well as any overseas trainer. Yet even he, while at pains to say how well the filly looked when she arrived from Doug Watson, was moved to point out how difficult her task was. “She came to me in excellent condition but we’re asking her to do almost the impossible, coming from Dubai to win the Oaks,” he said.

In the event, the UAE Oaks heroine Rayya was never seen with any sort of chance, finishing 13 of 14, beaten 42 lengths; ‘started slowly, always towards rear’, goes the comment on the Racing Post website. Slowly away? A disaster for a habitual front runner, no matter where in the world they’ve been racing. Then we get to Mendelssohn, where the obvious question was whether his startling track record display at Meydan could be believed. Everyone in the racing world knows there has been a horrendous pace and rail bias on the Meydan dirt strip, but even so, that UAE Derby effort was almost off the scale in handicapping terms.

But was it legitimate? Even Ryan Moore wasn’t entirely sure, as he admitted in an enlightening interview with Marcus Hersh of the Daily Racing Form. “Seeing how the track was riding and had been on previous days, it seemed foolish not to try and take advantage of that. “I suppose that track can tell you lies; we don’t fully know what to expect yet.” Without being quite as awful as Thunder Snow 12 months previously, it went almost as badly as anyone could have feared. First there was the weather: torrential rain all day resulting in pools of water sitting on a horrible sloppy track, a long way removed from anything Mendelssohn had ever encountered before. Like Meydan, a good start is always important in US dirt racing, and even more so on an ‘off’ track.

Mendelssohn started a touch slow; not dreadfully so in real terms, but still more than enough to sink his chances. After that, it was curtains for Mendelssohn, who was undone by his draw in 14, the last box before the auxiliary gate housing the six outside runners with a gap to the higher stalls and those runners at a slight angle. Just as happened with Classic Empire in the 2017 Derby, those horses on the outside angled sharply across from the right and Mendelssohn was banged, pinched, bashed (choose your own verb). Then he met further trouble after about 150 yards before trying to make a bit of ground in the back straight.

Eased down in the stretch, he was last of 20, beaten 53+ lengths by the hugely impressive Justify. (It was a tremendous great effort, by the way, for the winner to hold off his rivals off such brutal early fractions: 22.24s, 23.53, 25.24, 26.34, 26.85, having gone sprint pace, no wonder they were paddling at the end.) Again, Mendelssohn’s running comment is telling, in a negative sense: ‘badly bumped soon after start and again after 150 yards... soon well beaten, eased 1 1/2f out.’ Put simply, he was never involved. Aidan O’Brien admitted it had been a learning experience. “American dirt racing is very aggressive at the best of times but when the weather goes like that the aggression turns into nearly savagery because everyone knows that if you miss a millimetre at the start it’s over,” he reflected, speaking to the Racing Post.

“So everyone wants to hit the front, everyone wants to make the running. For trainers and jockeys the pressure and intensity steps up tenfold. “We’ve never really experienced it. We’ve experienced normal dirt racing before and were prepared for that, but we weren’t prepared for the different level of intensity. And if we weren’t prepared then the horse wasn’t prepared. Ultimately the horse and jockey paid the price for it. “We’ll obviously have to be more aggressive from the gates. Those horses that are on the Triple Crown road are taught that way from day one; the aggression becomes an impulse after a while because that’s the only way they know how to do it, whereas here they come out, they relax.

It’s a totally different culture. For us it was great to experience it.” What is more, they have a potential British Triple Crown winner in Saxon Warrior to consider, so it’s not all bad news at Ballydoyle! But what does that mean for Meydan? Not much, in reality, though it would have been a fillip for the UAE 3yo programme on the global stage if either Rayya or especially Mendelssohn had run a teensy bit better. And who knows, maybe something constructive can come of their dismal showings in Kentucky if that helps convince the ‘powers that be’ that something ought to be done to the Meydan dirt surface.

I honestly don’t believe that had anything whatsoever to do with such drab performances across the Atlantic; indeed, if Mendelssohn came out of it okay, I’d have run the latter in the Preakness in the hope of getting a fairer crack of the whip. Equally, though, it is doubtful those Kentucky Classics would have helped persuade people they should consider running their Triple Crown horses at Meydan. With that in mind, it is surely time to think seriously about some proper renovation on that idiosyncratic dirt track: rip it out, maybe, and replace it with a better surface (not Tapeta; I mean a better DIRT surface), or at least work hard to alleviate its idiosyncrasies. Then again, this is not a new plea in this space. I’ve said it before, and what happened in Kentucky hasn’t really changed anything. But you know what? Sometimes the right thing can happen for the wrong reasons.

Nicholas Godfrey
Racing Post international editor

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27 Sep 2018
Issue Number: Issue 648
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