When Meydan Racecourse took the decision to rip up Michael Dickinson’s Tapeta surface, of which I was a fan, and replace it with dirt, it appeared a move clearly aimed at attracting the cream of the American dirt horses.
And, boy, has it reaped dividends for this year’s renewal on Saturday.
Perhaps ironically, the most recent of the nine American-trained winners of the world’s richest horse race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup, was Animal Kingdom, who won in 2013, the penultimate renewal on Tapeta.
Last year’s race was unusual, with Japanese challenger Hokko Tarumae setting fast fractions, stalked by California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner.
Nothing really went right for Chrome, who ended up covering more ground than any of his eight rivals but was ‘running on empty’ when the Godolphin 8-year-old Prince Bishop threw down a late challenge, having been almost tailed off at halfway.
Then injured when being prepared for Royal Ascot and almost retired at one stage, California Chrome has returned this year with victory at Santa Anita, in the G2 San Pasqual Stakes, and then a handicap at Meydan.
A bigger, stronger specimen
His Meydan win was over the same 2,000-metre course and distance as Saturday’s race, and the equivalent race was won by Curlin in 2008 on his way to World Cup success.
This year’s California Chrome is a far bigger and stronger specimen than the one frustrated in last year’s World Cup.
Alan Sherman, assistant and son of trainer Art, said: “Missing Royal Ascot and having that long break has probably turned out to be a real blessing. You just need to look at him to see he has really blossomed with time.
“Everything has gone to plan with him and we wanted to come to Dubai early this time and get a race into him at Meydan. As we have always maintained, we really think, after a long break, a horse will be at his peak for his third start back, and that is what Saturday will be.
“He worked on Saturday and did a good piece over 1, 000 metres in just under 52 and a half seconds. It was a great workout and he should be spot on come Saturday. Basically, we are all excited and cannot wait for Saturday.”
California Chrome, who looks likely to start favourite, is being prepared at Meydan, whereas the second favourite, Frosted, is ‘out in the desert’ at Charlie Appleby’s Al Marmoon Stables.
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Here Kiaran McLaughlin has a small team in one barn, headlined by Frosted, ultra impressive when making a winning local debut in the 1,900-metre Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2, breaking the track record in the process.
William Buick, who won the World Cup on Prince Bishop last year, was in the saddle then and will be again on Saturday.
McLaughlin said: “We have a great facility here at Al Marmoon and it is perfect for us. It is so peaceful and the horses are just totally relaxed and thriving. We thought Frosted would need that first run and planned to run him again on Super Saturday, but he was so good in that win we have kept him fresh for Saturday.
“I do not think we have ever had him in better shape and he has been working superbly, posting great times. He did his last serious piece last week and that will have put him spot on for Saturday.
“Hopefully we get a nice low draw, which can only be an advantage. It looks a good race but I would not swap him.”
Meanwhile, the Dale Romans-trained Keen Ice was one of umpteen horses who failed to deliver on Super Saturday on a dirt surface, seemingly strongly biased to the horses contesting the early speed.
The only horse to beat Triple Crown hero American Pharoah last year, when winning the Travers Stakes, Keen Ice is better than he was able to show on his Meydan debut.
Ryan Moore: Keen Ice should run a big race
Given his clear strength is stamina and closing off a fast pace, the G1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 could not have panned out much worse, with winner Special Fighter, the locally-trained Teofilo 5-year-old, allowed to dictate steady fractions before powering home to break the 2,000-metre track record.
Keen Ice will race in blinkers on Saturday on the recommendation of his rider, Ryan Moore, who said: “He was badly drawn on Super Saturday and never really able to get competitive. His form is there for everybody to see and, hopefully, they will go quick on Saturday and his stamina can be utilised. As you would expect, it is a strong race but he should run a big race.”
Connections of Keen Ice may be hoping Saturday’s race pans out in a similar way to last year’s, when Prince Bishop, virtually tailed off at one stage, stormed home to land the spoils after California Chrome, who chased the early speed, appeared to suffer for those early exertions.
Mshawish, a turf winner at Meydan in the G2 Zabeel Mile of 2014, when trained in France by Mikel Delzangles, has reinvented himself as a dirt horse for U.S. trainer Todd Pletcher.
Having switched to Pletcher in the summer of 2014, he was the narrow winner of last year’s G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap before an excellent Meydan third in the G1 Dubai Turf on the World Cup card last season. His most recent outing, a victory in the G1 Donn Handicap, over 1,800 metres on the Gulfstream Park dirt, marked the Medaglia d’Oro 6-year-old out as a genuine World Cup contender.
Todd Pletcher: Mshawish looks a picture
Pletcher, who recently saddled his 4,000th career winner, was delighted with his charge’s final gallop on home soil, breezing over 1,000 metres in 58:80 seconds at Palm Beach Downs.
He said: “He always works well, but that was very good. He will just tick over in Dubai as he is clearly in great form. He nearly missed the Dubai race last year after a foot problem but has had no issues since and looks a picture.”
Bob Baffert knows what it takes to win a World Cup, having done so with Silver Charm in 1998 and Captain Steve three years later. He relies on Hoppertunity this year, another who has been impressing in his preparation prior to departure and looks in great shape since arriving.
Last year’s UAE Derby winner, Mubtaahij, trained by South African Mike de Kock, has some keen fans in the States, where he finished just behind Keen Ice in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He was ahead of Keen Ice but still disappointing when fourth to Special Fighter in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 on Super Saturday.
Of the other likely contenders, two of them were foaled in the U.S. - the Saudi-trained 5-year-old Teletext (by Empire Maker) and the Candy Ride 5-year-old Candy Boy, trained in the U.A.E., who was fourth in the race last year.
Also in the line-up are the Andre Fabre-trained 5-year-old Vadamos, second to champion European miler Solow on Polytrack at Chantilly earlier this month but yet to race on dirt, the Japanese dirt specialist Hokko Tarumae, who has run down the field in the last two World Cups, and Hong Kong’s Gun Pit, a Dubawi 5-year-old who chased home Special Fighter on Super Saturday - ahead of both Mubtaahij and Keen Ice.
The race is scheduled for 9pm local time (1pm EST, 5pm GMT).