Dubai today is the place to be for equine enthusiasts, the racing equivalent of boxing’s Thriller in Manila or the Rumble in the Jungle.
Most European trainers are still in the process of checking that their two-year-olds have emerged from the winter with four legs intact. Britain’s Flat season will on Saturday sputter into uncertain life, almost totally obscured until the Grand National fences have been jumped on April 14.
Yet on Saturday, Nad Al Sheba racecourse is already staging potentially the best race of the year, the $6m Dubai World Cup, in which the two highest-rated horses on the planet, Invasor and Discreet Cat, will slug it out for supremacy. Both are owned by members of the ruling Maktoum family, which has put Dubai on the map as a racing world power.
Invasor, bred in Argentina and originally run in Uruguay, is owned by Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum and trained in the US by Kieran McLoughlin. The colt topped the 2006 world thoroughbred ratings after causing a shock in the Breeders Cup race in the US, beating the Godolphin-owned Bernardini, since retired.
“Everyone thought he wouldn’t cope,” says Peter Nichols, general manager of Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stud in Norfolk, England. “But Bernardini had never been eyeballed before and our guy frightened him off.”
Trainer McLaughlin says of his horse: “He makes our life easy because he does everything so well.”
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation will be hoping for revenge over Nad Al Sheba’s 10 furlongs of dirt from the four-year-old Discreet Cat, who is unbeaten in his six races, including a six-length victory in the UAE Derby on last year’s card when Invasor finished third.
Trained by Saeed bin Suroor, Discreet Cat had to miss his planned warm-up race on the track a month ago because he was running a temperature but has impressed in his training since. It was, says racing manager Simon Crisford, a hiccup rather than a setback, and jockey Frankie Dettori says: “He is an exciting horse with a lot of speed.”
The only worry about Discreet Cat will be that he has not tackled this distance before. Both he and Invasor have easy temperaments and both have grown bigger and stronger over the past year.
Can anybody give the Big Two a race? There is no lack of international flavour among the challengers.
Bullish Luck, from Hong Kong, is a multiple Group One race winner from the top drawer and trainer Tony Cruz says the horse is at his best at this time of year. But Bullish Luck is eight years old and has not run on the dirt before.
English trainer Clive Brittain has the long shot Kandidate. Since he does not have a Group One bauble in his trophy cupboard, Kandidate has been trading at upwards of 33/1. But he has shown a liking for the track and his trainer has a record of pulling off big-race surprises.
Premium Tap, with US trainer John Kimmel on his first visit to the Middle East, impressed when winning the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup in Saudi Arabia. Forty Licks, the 2006 Horse of the Year in Argentina, disappointed his English trainer Ian Jory in that race but had previously won four races in Saudi Arabia.
It is not all about the big race, though, on a fabulous card worth $21m in all, with three more Group Ones and two Group Two races. It is a measure of the Dubai meeting that the Dubai Duty Free and the Dubai Sheema Classic, both run on turf, are jointly the second richest race in the world. Money may not always attract class but in racing it certainly does.
A leading entrant for the Sheema Classic’s $5m prize is Sir Percy, winner of last year’s Epsom Derby in England, who has raced only once since.
His rivals include Red Rocks, winner of the Breeders Cup Turf in the US last year. Red Rocks, trained by Brian Meehan from England, will be ridden by Japanese jockey Corey Nakatani and the Japanese, who have Vermilion in the World Cup, have been proving themselves a growing international force.
At the 2006 meeting, they won two of the six thoroughbred races, taking the Godolphin Mile with Utopia and the Sheema Classic with Heart’s Cry. Japan’s Delta Blues won the 2006 Melbourne Cup and Admire Moon is a lively contender for the Dubai Duty Free. Another contender is the Poonawalla family’s Mystical, the first Indian-trained horse to win abroad.
Another leading fancy for the Duty Free is Lava Man, trained in the US by Doug O’Neill and the third highest-ranked horse in the world. But he, of course, normally runs on dirt and, though he has five Grade One victories, he has never won a big race outside California.
One of those who has added to the international flavour in Dubai over the years is South African trainer Mike de Kock. He has won two UAE Derbies with Lundy’s Liability and Victory Moon and might have something special for this year’s race in the shape of Asiatic Boy.
De Kock says of Asiatic Boy: “He’s a very exciting horse. There’s no doubt he’s as good as Victory Moon.” Punters, please take note.