Author: Nicholas Godfrey

With apologies to Godolphin and Simon Crisford, by some measure the most significant winner on last week’s Dubai World Cup Carnival card was surely Dolkong, who hit the bullseye for South Korean-based trainer Simon Foster. Taken in isolation, victory in a relatively unimportant Listed handicap (even a near ten length victory!) is not necessarily the stuff of legends. However, jockey Olivier Doleuze’s celebrations as he crossed the line showed precisely how much it meant to the 5yo’s connections. Dolkong may not have been the first Korean winner in Dubai, but the Asian nation he represents have made no secret of their desire to become a major player internationally so a high profile victory on the global stage will have been heartily welcomed.

This emergent racing nation has already made great strides at home, where Lets Run Park, also known, more prosaically, as Seoul Racecourse, in the capital is a 77,000 capacity venue lacking for nothing except an apostrophe. Opened only in 1989 after taking over a site used for the equestrian disciplines at the Seoul Olympics, it is nevertheless the oldest of South Korea’s three tracks. Rather like in Hong Kong and Dubai, a coterie of experienced foreign trainers and jockeys have been employed by the Korea Racing Association (KRA) while more homegrown talent learns the trade, and things have evolved to the extent that horse racing is now one of the most popular sports in the country, a multi billion dollar industry. Furthermore, a number of overseas runners have been attracted to Korea’s showpiece meeting in September, where Group race aspirations are held for the Korea Cup and the Korea Sprint at the very least.

Both sponsored by Keeneland in 2018, they carried respective prize money of 1bn Korean Won (about $900,000) and 700m Korean Won ($625,000). They were both won by Japanese-trained horses, with the US, France, Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UAE all represented alongside the home nation, for whom Dolkong finished runner-up in the Keeneland Korea Cup, beaten 15 lengths by commanding winner London Town. By 2022, the centenary anniversary of Thoroughbred racing in Korea, there are plans to increase the purses to KRW 3bn ($2.7m) and KRW $2bn ($1.8m), so it seems more than probable that Seoul is set to become a popular venue on the international circuit. However, success for Korean horses abroad is considered a must if they are to be taken seriously on the global stage.

Improving the local stock, though, is easier said than done, which is why Dolkong’s victory last week will have been coveted indeed. Let’s be frank: the Korean representatives at this year’s carnival had hardly been covering themselves in glory. The 6yo Buhwarui Banseok has beaten the sum total of just two horses in a pair of Meydan handicaps, but at least that’s two more than compatriot Ace Korea, seventh of seven in the Dubawi Stakes and then tenth of ten in sprint handicap company. Sure, the competition can be brutal at this ‘away’ fixture but rather more was expected of Dolkong, who has won six of 11 starts in the last two years in Korea, never finishing worse than fourth.

If even he could not hold his own, then it would not say much for the standard of racing in the country, and the fact is he did not set the place alight straight away in Dubai, finishing 17 ½ lengths behind North America in the first round of the Al Maktoum Challenge before sights were lowered and he did better in coming third in a handicap on 24 January. Improvement, yes, but hardly enough to prepare us for last week’s demolition job. No wonder the sighs of relief in Seoul could probably have been heard as far away as Dubai! What is more, Dolkong was a proper international winner too, a gelded son of Afleet Alex, he was bred in the US, ridden by a Frenchman and trained in Korea by an Australian.

Then again, as stated in these pages ad nauseam over recent years, such cosmopolitan competition is what the Dubai World Cup Carnival is all about, little short of its raison d’etre. For that reason alone, amid Godolphin’s continued omnipotence, Dolkong’s victory must surely have been applauded by everyone else with the event’s best interests at heart.

Not just Appleby set to rule the rankings

In a neat illustration of the Godolphin dominance alluded to in last week’s column, the formidable Dubai-based team maintained their near 50% record at this year’s carnival by winning three of the six Thoroughbred races on offer last week at Meydan. There was just the one Group race up for grabs in the shape of the Nad Al Sheba Trophy and, naturally enough, Godolphin claimed it. In fact, they didn’t just win it, they were responsible for another 1-2-3 led home by Ispolini, though it is unlikely the result was any cause for celebration at the Charlie Appleby stable owing to the horrible fatal injury suffered during the race by the hugely promising 4yo Brundtland, who was expected to take high rank among the stayers this year. Appleby, though, is unassailable atop the trainers’ lists at the Dubai carnival, while Ispolini’s victory also served to confirm his new status at the head of the world rankings published weekly on the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary website.

Incidentally, looked at as a whole, the rankings reveal a clear changing of the guard in the long running rivalry between Godolphin and Coolmore. Ryan Moore won’t be overtaken any time soon among the jockeys, but Dubawi is the world’s number one sire ahead of Galileo (with Frankel third) and, by the time this column appears, it is entirely possible that the Dubai team will have overhauled the Coolmore Partners among the owners. After the recent Godolphin winning spree in Australia and Dubai, there was just a single point between the two outfits at the time of writing. If Godolphin’s hometown dominance in Dubai is a fairly routine occurrence, however, the remainder of last week’s card was anything but commonplace.

Not only did Dolkong score for South Korea but Simon Crisford, for so long Godolphin’s racing manager, gained deserved reward for his enterprise in opening a Dubai satellite yard with a memorable double thanks to Listed race turf victor Sporting Chance and African Ride. Make no mistake: such is the strength of the domestic defence in the Meydan dirt era that a double for an overseas trainer can be regarded as a notable achievement.

Nicholas Godfrey
International sportswriter

Sighs of relief from Seoul to Dubai as Dolkong strikes