Horses can’t tell you much, but in racing, money talks. The prizes on offer today at the Dubai World Cup meeting, with $15m spread across a seven-race card, regularly draw the cream of the international racing circuit to the first big event of their season.

There are no greater horse enthusiasts worldwide than the four Maktoum brothers. They turned a patch of desert into the elegant Nad al Sheba turf and dirt tracks and have made Dubai an important racing venue even though betting is illegal in the United Arab Emirates. Between them, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and his brothers have spent more than $1bn on horses and their Godolphin operation has taken the top prize in four of the previous nine Dubai World Cups. This year, however, their focus is likely to be less on the $6m prize money for the big event than on the Group Two United Arab Emirates Derby in which their candidate will be the unbeaten Shamardal, Europe’s top two-year-old last year.

Sheikh Mohammed, who rode in his first horse race aged 12 and is said to be able to tell his own camel’s footprint in a herd of a hundred, has captured almost every top prize in Europe in his time but he has never fulfilled his dream of winning a Kentucky Derby at the Churchill Downs course in the US, which he took as a model for Nad al Sheba.

Shamardal was nearly put down as a yearling because he was a “wobbler” (a horse with a spinal ailment making it unable to co-ordinate its legs), but he was reprieved by the insurers who paid out on his since-cured infirmity. He is a son of the great Giant’s Causeway, who after a series of big wins on turf proved his ability to perform on dirt when narrowly beaten in the Breeder’s Cup by Tiznow. Shamardal’s efforts today, his first appearance on a dirt surface, will therefore determine whether he heads back to Britain to race on turf as favourite for the first British Classic, the 2,000 Guineas, or whether he is sent to the US as the Maktoum hope for this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 7.

Few of the entrants for the UAE Derby have a record to compare with Shamardal, who was trained in Britain last year by Mark Johnston, but US trainer Kenny McPeek takes on Godolphin’s new hope with another horse who has won his past three races, Durban Thunder. British racegoers won’t have forgotten the first McPeek raider sent to Britain last year. At 33-1, Hard Buck divided the Godolphin pair Doyen and Sulamani in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

The three leading fancies for the Dubai Gold Cup itself, worth $3.6m to the winner, are all US-based. Favourite is Roses in May, trained by Dale Romans, who has won seven of his 12 starts and who finished second to the mighty Ghostzapper in the Breeder’s Cup Classic in October. “He is the horse to beat,” says his trainer. Romans’ biggest worry is Congrats, who is handled by Richard Mandella, successful in last year’s race with Pleasantly Perfect. Congrats too has seven victories behind him, but from 18 starts.

Fellow US trainer Bobby Frankel takes them on with Lundy’s Liability, who won the 2004 UAE Derby. Provided he has recovered in time from a bruised foot, Godolphin’s colours will be carried in the race by the 16-1 outsider Grand Hombre, who was fourth to Pleasantly Perfect and who will be ridden by Frankie Dettori. From Japan comes Adjudi Mitsuo while South African trainer Mike de Kock, a dab hand at producing Dubai winners, runs Yard-Arm, a five time Group One winner when trained by Geoff Woodruff in South Africa. The only British entry is Gerard Butler’s Jack Sullivan.

An interesting candidate in the Group One Sheema Classic is the globe-trotting Powerscourt, trained by Aidan O’Brien for Coolmore. Coolmore’s latest jockey, former British champion Kieren Fallon, will hope for better luck than Jamie Spencer, who was first past the post in the Arlington Million on Powerscourt last year but who lost the race on a disqualification. Powerscourt will take on Cherry Mix, now with Godolphin, who finished second in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last year. Also likely to attract support are British trainer Sir Michael Stoute’s only Dubai entrant Maraheel, fourth in the St Leger last year for Hamdan al Maktoum, and the international star Phoenix Reach, trained by Andrew Balding, who has already won the Woodbine International in Canada and the Hong Kong International with him and who must be good value at 9-2.

If Sheikh Mohammed has a dream about the Kentucky Derby, race-goers will want to know what Andrew Balding dreamed about last night. Before the Hong Kong race he dreamed that his horse broke its bridle at the start of the race and he had to borrow a spare from Aidan O’Brien before going on to win the race – and that was what happened.

In the Group One Dubai Duty Free, Britain has a strong entry in the shape of Marcus Tregoning’s Alkaadhem, who has been showing good form in Dubai. He will face Right Approach, who ran a dead-heat with Paolini in last year’s race. Right Approach is available at 6-1 but trainer Mike de Kock does not seem totally convinced. He also runs Moon Dazzle, Key of Destiny and Wolf Whistle in the same race.

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