Can it be that Dubai's big day of racing produced not only a World Cup champion but also a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender?
For years, horses trained in Dubai have traveled to Churchill Downs with great credentials and even greater expectations, only to bomb in the Run for the Roses. Critics maintain that training in the desert, against questionable competition in limited racing, can't provide the kind of seasoning needed to win the United States' highest-profile race.
Godolphin Racing and its owners, the Maktoum family, have a history of poor Kentucky Derby performance by superior colts. Among them were Worldly Manner, seventh in the 1999 Run for the Roses; China Visit and Curule, sixth and seventh the following year; Express Tour, eighth in 2001; and Essence of Dubai, ninth in 2002. Oh yes -- Arazi finished eighth in 1992, although he is a special case.
Discreet Cat, winner of Saturday's $2 million U.A.E. Derby at Nad Al Sheeba, might be a different story.
Also owned by the Godolphin racing machine, the bay colt is a Kentucky-bred son of Forestry. Trained last year by Stanley Hough, Discreet Cat made only one start -- winning a 6-furlong maiden event on Aug. 25 at Saratoga by 3 1/2 lengths, leading most of the way and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106.
Godolphin wrapped up on the colt and shipped him to the Middle East. There, he didn't resurface until two weeks ago, when he rallied from off the pace to win the Areej Trophy allowance by 4 lengths. He picked up Godolphin's top rider, Frankie Dettori, for that race and Dettori remained aboard for Saturday's triumph.
Again, Discreet Cat sat off the pace in the U.A.E. Derby. But, Dettori said, when asked for run, "He took me there on the bridle and then we just went clear."
Asked about the Kentucky Derby, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum said, "We'll have to see how he comes out of the race and then we'll decide." But Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford said Discreet Cat "is a horse that's going places and we are really excited....It was very, very impressive. He's got such talent. Obviously, all our options are open for him, including the Kentucky Derby."
Other Derby-related weekend developments:
-- There was no standout in Saturday's $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky so it wasn't a total surprise that the winner was the longest chance on the tote board at nearly 50-1. With a City struggled in the claiming ranks last fall and winter in Florida but began to show promise in December. Under new ownership, he ran well in the Battaglia Memorial three weeks ago, finishing a close eighth. And Saturday, the City Zip colt put it all together, rallying four-wide from mid-pack to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Seaside Retreat. Malameeze and More Than Regal completed a $2 superfecta payout of $395,673.80. The final time was 1:51.11. "Everybody told me I was crazy when I bought this horse privately for $150,000," said owner Ron Peltz. "But I always loved this horse. ... I was very confident that he would run a good race today." Asked if he would pay for a late Triple Crown nomination for With a City, Peltz said, "I just wrote a check." Winning trainer Mike Maker said the Battaglia showed his colt needed blinkers, which were added Saturday. "The Kentucky Derby has been the plan all along," he said. "We might look at going to Arkansas and running in the Derby down there."
-- In the race before the Lane's End, High Cotton returned to the promise he showed with second-place finishes in last fall's juvenile races at Churchill Downs. In his first start this year, the Dixie Union colt stumbled and was eased. In Saturday's $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, High Cotton was hustled to the front by jockey Christopher DeCarlo, set a moderate pace and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Special Interest. Bear Character was third. The favorite, Fabled, finished seventh. The $2 superfecta payout was $537,175.80. "The horse ships to Keeneland tomorrow," said Michael Dilger, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "Todd will decide on his future sometime shortly after that." Special Interest, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, also may have earned another chance to run himself into the Derby picture.
-- Our Peak, at odds of nearly 75-1, rallied five-wide at the quarter pole and went on to win Saturday's $85,000 Private Terms Stakes by a neck over Ah Day at Laurel Park in Maryland. Sunshine Alpine was third and the favorite, Happy Surprise, provided backers with an unhappy surprise, finishing eighth after setting the early pace. Our Peak, a Maryland-bred son of Peaks and Valleys, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.66 for jockey Rosie Napravnik. Our Peak was making his stakes debut. Both of his previous wins were at Charles Town, in West Virginia. The $1 superfecta payout was $55,237.10. "I'm not sure where we'll run him next," said winning trainer Katy Voss. "The Tesio (April 22) is a possibility if he comes back OK." Four of the last five winners of the Private Terms have come back to run in the Preakness Stakes.
In races with potential Kentucky Oaks implications:
-- Top Notch Lady saved her best run for the final yards of Saturday's $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup for 3-year-old fillies at Turfway Park. After failing to keep pace early in the stretch run, the daughter of Sultry Song kicked in when it counted, getting up at the wire to win by a neck over Coronado's Vision. Lemons Forever finished third. Top Notch Lady, with Robby Albarado up, ran the 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:39.26. "She will likely return to Canada for her next start," said winning trainer Mark Casse.
-- Ermine made short work of a short field in Saturday's $75,000 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. With Calvin Borel up, the Exchange Rate filly rated behind the leader, Morner, took the lead on the turn for home and cruised off to win by 3 lengths. Brownie Points, the favorite, was along late to finish second, 3 1/2 lengths ahead of Morner. Baghdaria was fourth. Ermine now has two wins and two seconds from four finishes. In her other start, she ducked in and tossed her rider. She came into the race off her maiden victory in her second try over the Oaklawn course.
In other weekend racing:
Nad Al Sheba
Electrocutionist looked like a horse to beat before Saturday's $6 million Dubai World Cup -- the winner of seven of his nine starts against top international competition and a romping winner of a prep race over the Nad Al Sheba surface. But with only a few jumps to go in the big race, even jockey Frankie Dettori wasn't giving his mount much chance to win. After trailing Japanese star Kane Hekili, Dettori needed room for Electrocutionist to run. "I found a gap at the five-eighths pole and took it with both hands," he said. "I then had to switch him and lost some energy and ground." Meanwhile, top U.S. hope Brass Hat was making his move and proving stubborn. "I did not think I could win until I was 30 yards out, as I could not shake off Brass Hat," Dettori said. But Electrocutionist, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Red Ransom, was up the task, edging clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Brass Hat, with perennial bridesmaid Wilko finishing third. Previously campaigned in Italy, Electrocutionist came to Godolphin after winning the Juddmonte International at York last August and a fourth-place finish in the Canadian International at Woodbine on October. He did not contest last year's Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park but now moves to the head of the contenders' list for this year's renewal at Churchill Downs. Although new to the Godolphin barn, his pedigree includes Godolphin history. His damsire is Arazi. Brass Hat also is on the list of this year's top handicap horses. Winner of the New Orleans and Donn handicaps earlier this season, the 5-year-old Prized gelding ran well on Saturday. "Everybody knows that he's one of the best now," said trainer William Bradley.
Utopia, a Japanese invader, led throughout Saturday's $1 million Godolphin Mile, winning by 4 lengths over Win River Win, with Jack Sullivan third. Win River Win is trained in Turkey; Jack Sullivan, in England. Utopia, a 6-year-old son of Forty Niner, hadn't won in four starts since scoring in a 1-mile event in Japan last October.
U.S.-based horses took the first five places in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen at about 6 furlongs down the straight, with Proud Tower Too leading from the git-go and finishing 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Thor's Echo. Jet West was home third. More frequently seen in restricted stakes in California, Proud Tower Too, a 4-year-old son of Proud Irish, stepped into open company to upset the Grade I Malibu Stakes last December at 20-1 odds. "I can't even explain how this feels," said winning rider David Cohen. "It means the world."
Heart's Cry gave Japan its second winner on the card by taking the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,400 meters on the grass. Leading all the way, the 5-year-old son of Sunday Silence finished 4 1/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Collier Hill, with Falstaff third. Ouija Board, winner of the Hong Kong Vase in her last outing, finished fourth with a late run. Winning trainer Kojiro Hashiguchi said Heart's Cry proved "he can go and run anywhere in the world. ... We will take a look to going for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes next."
David Junior, upset winner of the Champion Stakes at Newmarket in his last start last October, kicked off his 4-year-old campaign with a bang by winning Saturday's $5 million Dubai Duty Free by a comfortable 3 1/2 lengths over The Tin Man. Seihali was third. David Junior, a Florida-bred son of Pleasant Tap, went to the lead with about 400 meters to go under Jamie Spencer and drew clear. "They went a bit quick," Spencer said. "But 600 meters out, I was in no doubt and we went home hands and heels." The Tin Man's trainer, Richard Mandella, said the stretch duel "was fun. Just wait until next year. He'll be mature by then." The Tin Man is twice David Junior's age.
Sha Tin (Hong Kong)
Billet Express was beaten more than 13 lengths in his last start and an unlikely choice in Sunday's Chairman's Sprint Prize -- second leg of the Champion Sprint Series. Even trainer John Moore said he figured his steed had "a rough place chance, at best." So it was a surprise when Billet Express came running past both Scintillation and Silent Witness to win by a head. Scintillation held second and later was found to have bled significantly. Silent Witness improved over his recent form by taking third. "I'm in shock," said Moore. "I really thought we were playing for minor money and so did Christophe (jockey Christophe Soumillon, who flew in from Dubai for the mount). He said the horse loved the softer ground but he only believed he could win inside the final 50 meters."
Moore was back in the winners' circle less than an hour later with a more likely champion -- Viva Pataca, the successful heavy favorite in the day's second feature, the Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby. The British-bred son of Marju got home 1 3/4 lengths better than Hail The Storm, with Silver Sun third. Soumillon also had this winning mount, making his speedy return from the Middle East more than worth while. "It's the third time I have had a horse in the Derby and I guess that it's my turn now," said winning owner Ho Hung-sun, an entrepreneur in Hong Kong and Macau. His horse formerly raced as Comic Strip in Britain. He now is a candidate for the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup next month at Sha Tin.
Skeleton Crew fought for the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Hansel Stakes for 3-year-olds, got it and then held on to win by a neck over Final Copy, with Cognac Kisses third. Skeleton Crew, a Kentucky-bred gelding by Elusive Quality, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.77 under Phil Teator. "Eventually, I want to stretch him out," said winning trainer Patrick Huffman. "We will probably go to Keeneland and run for some big money. He might be a very special horse."
Very Vegas led most of the way in Saturday's $50,000 Queen Stakes for fillies and mares and held on to win by a neck over Eastern Lily, with Listen a nose farther back in third. Very Vegas, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Storm Boot, ran the 6 furlongs of all-weather track in 1:11.44 for jockey Jesus Castanon.
Golden Gate Fields
Cosmonaut came to the leaders with a quarter mile to run in Saturday's $150,000 Goolden Gate Fields Handicap, quickly took charge and won easily, by 4 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Adreamisborn. Cherooot was third. Cosmonaut, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Lemon Drop Kid, ran the 9 furlongs on a "good" main track in 1:48.75 with Tony Farina aboard.
Oonagh Maccool survived a bit of a rough go at the start of Saturday's $200,000 Rampart Handicap, then went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Sweet Symphony. Classy Charm finished third. Oohagh Maccool, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred daughter of Giant's Causeway, ran the 1 1/8 mile on a fast track in 1:49.99 under Rafael Bejarano. The filly came into the race off an allowance victory and appears to be on her way up the ladder. Tony Sciametta, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher, said he tough start was no issue. "She rated fine and, when he pulled her out for the drive, you saw what happened," Sciametta said.
Smokey Glacken, the odds-on favorite, stumbled at the start, then surged to the lead at mid-stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap, then held on gamely to beat Magnolia Jackson by a neck. Annika Lass finished third. Smokey Glacken, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Forestry, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.49 with Javier Castellano up. "She was getting late" at the end, said winning trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who had the mare racing at Gulfstream Park earlier in the year. "You always worry when you come to a track that is much slower. ... Considering that, it was a gutsy effort."
Fleet Indian was fleet enough to get to the front on the second turn in Sunday's $100,000 Next Move Handicap and then gutsy enough to hold off Flaming Heart in the final 16th and win by 1 length. No Sleep, the favorite, was third and India Halo completed the order of finish. Fleet Indian, a 5-year-old, New York-bred mare by Indian Charlie, ran 9 furlongs in 1:49.32 with Jose Santos in the irons for trainer Todd Pletcher.
King's Drama rated off the pace in Saturday's $200,000 San Luis Rey Handicap, got the lead three-wide on the stretch turn and worked clear to win by 1 length over T.H. Approval. Wild Buddy was third. King's Drama, a 6-year-old, Irish-bred son of King's Theatre, ran 1 1/2 mile in 2:36.50 with Jon Court in the irons for trainer Bobby Frankel. Court, subbing for Patrick Valenzuela, said he told Frankel "we could inherit the lead but I'm expecting a horse or two to set up in front of us and that's exactly how it turned out. I just kind of help him to the task as we turned for home and he finished in front." Frankel said the next race for King's Drama may be the Jim Murray at Hollywood Park on May 13.
Sunday, Silver Cup posted her third straight graded stakes victory by taking down the $150,000 Santa Ana Handicap by 1/2 length over the favorite, Argentina. Silver Cup, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred filly, ran the 9 furlongs on the grass in 1:48.13. She was ridden by Victor Espinoza, who flew back from Dubai specifically for the mount. "I got here 15 minutes before I had to check in," said Espinoza. "I barely made it. I think I'm more tired than her." Silver Cup, who began her career in Italy, won the San Gorgonio Handicap and the Buena Vista Handicap earlier in the meeting. She is the first horse to sweep all three races.
Watchem Smokey sat just behind the leaders early in Saturday night's $75,000 Gulf Coast Classic Stakes, put in his bid in the stretch and got home first, 2 lengths better than Wild Notions. Gigawatt was third and the favorite, Silver Axe, finished fourth. Watchem Smokey, a 6-year-old, Oklahoma-bred gelding by 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.88 with Kerwin Clark riding.
What the heck did Jamie Spencer mean when he said, "We went home hands and heels."??? (And you can fool me with any reasonable-sounding explanation because I haven't a clue).