Author: Nicholas Godfrey

So, five meetings in at the Dubai World Cup Carnival for 2019. When one considers an honour role featuring winners for Australia, South Africa, Bahrain, France, UK and Sweden, it feels almost wrong to suggest this has felt like a curiously hometown affair. Yet despite a wonderfully cosmopolitan list of carnival acceptors, UAE stables, and Godolphin in particular, of course, have been making life hard for ‘all comers’. This is especially true on the dirt, of course, where overseas winners have always been a rarity at Meydan, so Swedishbased Susanne Berneklint deserves to step forward for special mention after the fluent victory of I Kirk last month under jockey Carlos Lopez. The 5yo, eight times a dirt winner in Scandinavia, blitzed his rivals for speed in that 6f handicap.

Still, though, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and with even the formidable Mike de Kock struggling for winners, it hasn’t really paid to look too far from home to find the majority of winners. However, such a parochial scenario has never held sway on Dubai World Cup night itself, and battle lines are being drawn across the racing planet ready for the world’s richest raceday, starting in Japan, a nation that can be relied upon to leave its mark at Meydan on the big night. At the recent Japan Racing Association awards, it was revealed that their latest superstar Almond Eye, who is doubly entered on World Cup night, will be targeted at the Dubai Turf rather than the Sheema Classic.

The 2017 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) victor Rey De Oro is returning to Dubai for the latter contest in a bid to improve on last year’s fourth place (after being given too much to do off a slow pace behind Hawkbill). After her brilliant track record victory in the Japan Cup, fillies’ Triple Crown winner Almond Eye was a unanimous vote as Horse of the Year. Yet while she is a leading fancy for what the Japanese refer to as the Gaisen-mon sho (Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe), connections evidently remain slightly worried about her stamina, hence the cut back in trip at Meydan at the start of her 4yo campaign. Trainer Sakae Kunieda seemed to suggest the sky’s the limit (albeit roughly, in translation!).

“I think she is improving mentally, physically and so on,” he said. “I don’t know her limits right now. She will challenge for top class races in the spring and I’m expecting some amazing performances.” Christophe Lemaire, record setting Champion Rider of Japan in 2018, will ride both high profile Dubai contenders. Meanwhile in North America, any number of high profile candidates are being lined up for Dubai. Four potential World Cup runners were due to line up at Santa Anita on Saturday for the San Pasqual Stakes, albeit before the race was decimated after torrential rain, with the Bob Baffert-trained Dabster among the scratches on a sloppy track.

Baffert still saddled the hot favourite in McKinzie, but the much touted 4yo, who missed the Pegasus World Cup to concentrate on Meydan, was narrowly beaten in a thrilling finish by fellow Dubai entry Battle Of Midway. Any horse can be forgiven a defeat in a prep race on such grisly underfoot conditions, and McKinzie had a horrible journey stuck between two horses in a fearsome stretch drive. Mike Smith, a refreshingly honest self critic, said he would ride the race differently if he had another go. So there were excuses. But still the performance raised question marks for me. For one thing, McKinzie seemed to lose momentum in stride when hit with the whip and swishing his tail; blinkers, maybe? More fundamentally, I’m not entirely sure he wants the 10f World Cup trip.

Mind you, he isn’t among Godophin Mile acceptors, so there aren’t many options, which isn’t the case for the winner Battle Of Midway, a really likeable type, having made his name winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile before an abortive stint at stud. His jockey Flavien Prat is going great guns by the way, leading the standings at the current Santa Anita meet. Pavel, the other horse mentioned in World Cup dispatches, was fourth of five more than ten lengths adrift. Other US horses destined for what is again the world’s richest race are headed by Grade One winner Seeking The Soul, who ran past Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Accelerate to claim a distant second behind City Of Light (now retired, sadly) in the Pegasus.

“He’s right on his game right now and has a big chance in Dubai,” said trainer Dallas Stewart, who saddled ‘late running’ mare Forever Unbridled to finish fifth last year at Meydan. Legendary trainer D Wayne Lukas is also headed for Dubai for the first time with Pegasus fourth Bravazo, while both Audible and Gunnevera, who filled the places immediately behind Bravazo at Gulfstream, are regarded as possibles. Who knows about Yoshida, who went back to turf on the Pegasus card? Either way, the States looks set to be ‘mob handed’ as they attempt to dethrone Thunder Snow, and they’ll also be fielding their customary strong team in the Golden Shaheen, where dual Breeders’ Cup hero Roy H will bid to improve on last year’s third place following an easy comeback victory in Grade Two company at Santa Anita at the end of last month.

Despite a dismal effort recently at Gulfstream in much lesser grade, last year’s runner-up XY Jet is also likely to return for more, while Imperial Hint, who missed the 2016 Shaheen after contracting pneumonia, is also being primed for the Shaheen. Californian-based Stormy Liberal, who defended his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint crown in November, is in line for the Al Quoz Sprint, where he was second to Jungle Cat in 2018. On the other hand, closer to home, one horse who sadly does not seem likely to head out to Meydan is the John Gosdentrained Wissahickon. Emphatic winner of the Cambridgeshire in September, he was impressive last weekend when overcoming trouble in running for a cosy victory in the Winter Derby Trial, a Listed race at Lingfield, under a confident Frankie Dettori.

Already rated 117, this progressive 4yo is clearly a very high calibre performer, a cut above even the better types we usually see in the UK over the winter. “He is a proper horse now,” enthused Dettori. “My last ride on him in the Cambridgeshire was amazing; he was a horse who worried a little bit, but he is getting a lot better with racing and tender loving care. He is definitely out of handicaps now and it is Group races for him from now onwards.” Unfortunately, however, while Wissahickon’s name features among the acceptors for both the Dubai Turf and Sheema Classic, Gosden intimated after the Lingfield race that he will stay in Britain on the all-weather for now. As a US-bred son of Tapit owned by George Strawbridge, though, his future may well lie across the Atlantic, where a switch to dirt would certainly be worth a try. Understandably, that’s the sort of thing Gosden was talking about. Just a shame he wasn’t talking about Dubai as well!

My thanks to top racing writer, photographer and friend of Al Adiyat, Mazakazu Takahashi for his assistance with the Japanese information contained in this column.

Nicholas Godfrey
International sportswriter

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