Author: Michele MacDonald

A pair of American Racing Hall of Fame trainers who have never saddled a starter in the UAE during their lengthy careers may be on their way to the Dubai World Cup this year with runners who cannot be ignored. The typically taciturn Jerry Hollendorfer couldn’t stop smiling and even came close to giggling after watching his charge Battle Of Midway grit his teeth and edge past the more fancied Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita Park on 2 February. “We’ll enjoy this and then see what comes up,” Hollendorfer coyly replied when asked about the future for Battle Of Midway, a robust 5yo who has returned to racing with panache after flunking fertility standards during the 2018 breeding season at WinStar Farm, a co-owner.

Battle Of Midway has been nominated for both the Dubai World Cup and the Godolphin Mile, and the executive director of his other co-owner, the international Don Alberto Corp that has bases in America and Chile, has indicated they are keen to send him to Meydan. While Hollendorfer, 72, was keeping his plans to himself, 83yo D Wayne Lukas was proclaiming that his 4yo trainee Bravazo, who has made a mark as a colt always fighting for a piece of major race pie while not yet having achieved a Grade One victory, deserves to be loaded in the Dubai World Cup starting gate. “I think he merits it,” Lukas said of Calumet Farm’s Bravazo. While noting the uncertainties involved with travel to a new destination featuring elite competition, Lukas conceded: “You never know,” regarding how such a mission would unfold.

“But,” he pointed out in reference to the Dubai World Cup prize money, “$12 million is certainly a strong incentive.” The lure of the world’s richest race also has the attention of the connections of Gunnevera and Seeking The Soul, who share similar profiles with Bravazo. Neither Bravazo nor Gunnevera ran their best in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes on 26 January at Gulfstream Park, with both unplaced behind now retired winner City Of Light, but Gunnevera also is primed for a Dubai World Cup sojourn. Neither Bravazo nor Gunnevera has ever won a Grade One race, with each achieving household name status in America as perennial ‘place getters’ rather than ‘big race winners’.

Gunnevera has earned over $4.36 million with five places in Grade One races, with his best effort a fast closing second to Accelerate in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs that left him three-quarters of a length in front of 2018 Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow. Trainer Antonio Sano’s son, Alessandro, who works with the racing stable, tweeted on 30 January the words ‘Live to fight another day’ along with an image of the invitation extended from Dubai officials for Gunnevera to compete again in the Dubai World Cup.

Gunnevera was off slowly at the start of the Pegasus and couldn’t make up much ground, finishing sixth in the field of 12. In Dubai last year, the multiple Grade Two winner experienced some foot problems while training before the Dubai World Cup and ended up eighth in the race behind Thunder Snow. For his part, Bravazo finished fourth in the Pegasus, with Lukas suggesting that the colt became somewhat overwhelmed after being hemmed on the inside and taking a lot of mud to the face in the taxing wet conditions. The $700,000 purse money acquired in the Pegasus pushed Bravazo’s career earnings over $2 million even though he has only one Stakes victory to his name, the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, to go along with his six Grade One placings.

Meanwhile, Seeking The Soul finished second in the Pegasus and, while he has one Grade One win to his name, he is another best known for his runner-up finishes. Winner of six of 24 starts, he has placed no fewer than a dozen times, including in a trio of major races such as his second place effort in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile won by City Of Light; in that race Seeking The Soul was two and a half lengths clear of third placed Bravazo. Considering these overall records and recent exploits, Battle Of Midway looks to be the most progressive American horse at this moment whose connections are considering the Dubai World Cup.

While he has not won at the 2000m distance, Battle Of Midway proved himself worthy when finishing third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby captured by front running Always Dreaming on a sealed and wet track. That performance, which tipped observers to how he could handle the similar surface in the San Pasqual, defined his quality as he finished ahead of champion Classic Empire, eventual Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit and Gunnevera. Even though Battle Of Midway has won only once at the Grade One level and that was over 8f in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, he showed in the San Pasqual that he could go farther. Also notable is the fact that he is a son of Smart Strike, who gave us Dubai World Cup winner Curlin.

Starting on the outside in a San Pasqual field cut to five by three scratches, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum’s Dubai World Cupnominated Dabster, due to the rain and mud, Battle Of Midway bided his time early before making a determined four wide bid against McKinzie. Jockey Flavien Prat on Battle Of Midway made sure to keep McKinzie to his inside throughout the race, which he said was a key factor even though he had to cover more ground while often running near the centre of the track. “I don’t think either horse likes to get pressure inside, and I was able to stay just outside of McKinzie the whole way. My horse likes to play around a little when he makes the lead, but he still finished good,” Prat said.

Mike Smith, who rode McKinzie, seemed to agree with Prat’s general analysis regarding positioning, saying: “If I had it to do over again, I would’ve taken my horse back,” despite his sharp break from the gate. Whether Baffert will press on to Dubai with McKinzie is a big question mark. The trainer has relayed that the colt sometimes needs ample time between races, and he knows McKinzie’s worst performance to date was in the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he was a discouraging 12th of 14. Baffert recently described McKinzie as ‘still developing’ and he mentioned the one mile Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park as a possible goal this spring. He opted to skip the rich Pegasus for the presumably easier spot in the San Pasqual, which was over the same 1 1/8-mile distance.

While the Santa Anita track was very wet, the sealing process made it fast, and McKinzie pressed demanding fractions of :22.86, :46.09 and 1:09.33 before yielding to Battle Of Midway by half a length in quick final time of 1:46.95. Granted, the San Pasqual was on a different track with different competition and tactics (albeit the same wet conditions), but it is still interesting that Battle Of Midway’s time was faster than City Of Light’s Pegasus clocking of 1:47.71, although the latter was ridden out to an easy win under no pressure. Nonetheless, Battle Of Midway, who has won half of his 16 starts and placed six additional times, showed that he must be considered a serious threat for Dubai, if Hollendorfer decides to make his maiden voyage to the Middle East.

While Hollendorfer, who has trained champions Songbird, Unique Bella, Shared Belief and Blind Luck, takes his work very seriously, he most likely is smiling, and maybe even chuckling, when he contemplates the same 12 million reasons that are enticing Lukas.

Michele MacDonald
Award winning International journalist

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