The events are not totally unrelated. The Group 1 UAE Derby, on the World Cup undercard, is recognized by Churchill Downs as an official prep race for the Kentucky Derby. As in its Saturday counterparts in the American South, the winner gets 100 points toward a start in the Run for the Roses. And the one American horse in the race hopes to scoop up those points and head to Louisville.
Each of the big weekend programs boasts multiple grade and group races on its undercard -- eight in Dubai, five at Gulfstream Park and three at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Not to be ignored, Santa Anita has a pair of rich events for California-bred 3-year-olds.
From the desert of Dubai to the Atlantic breezes of Florida to the bayous of New Orleans, we're off and running:
Although the 13 starters in the $10 million, Group 1 Dubai World Cup get the bulk of the week's limelight, some of the races on Saturday night's undercard are at least as interesting.
The World Cup itself features the top three finishers from last year, Monterosso -- who won for the meeting's host, Sheik Mohammed bin Rasheed Al Maktoum, and hopes to become the first two-time winner of the race -- Capponi and Planteur. African Story, who won the Godolphin Mile for Sheik Mohammed on last year's card, steps up this year to the big race. The three U.S. horses all have unusual back stories. Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, has battled injury and misfortune but has shown remarkable resilience and versatility. He missed the World Cup last year with an injury and his owners hope he can perform before heading off to stud duties in Australia. Dullahan, a three-time winner on artificial surfaces in America, will try to match that success at Meydan despite a poor effort in an earlier Dubai race. And Royal Delta will try to become the first mare to win the World Cup but will need better racing luck than she had last year when she was no factor in the event. Among the favorites is Hunter's Light, a Godolphin runner who scored in the final local prep for the big race. Several other world travelers will join those. The race is 2,000 meters, or about 1 1/4 miles, on the Tapeta all-weather track.
There's a sparkling international cast for the race before the World Cup, the $5 million, Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,410 meters or 1 1/2 miles on the grass. Two of Japan's top middle distance runners are here, Japan Cup-winning filly Gentildonna and Trailblazer, who was fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf. St Nicholas Abbey and Sharetta, who were third and fifth in the BC Turf, also are in the 11-horse field. Godolphin entered two, Sharestan and Prince Bishop. Dunaden has traveled the world and can jump up with a big race. Await the Dawn was second in his local prep race for the ever-dangerous trainer Mike De Kock.
The $5 million, Group 1 Dubai Duty Free at 1,800 meters, or about 9 furlongs on the grass, features Little Mike among its 14 starters. He won last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita, failed in a try over the Meydan Tapeta surface and is back on his favored footing for this race and gets resurgent rider Gary Stevens into the bargain. Godolphin has three, led by City Style and Sajjhaa, both in good form over the course. De Kock also has a trio with Mushreq and The Apache seeming in better form than Igugu. I'm A Dreamer, winner of last year's Grade I Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington, represents the distaffers. Giofra and French Fifteen wave the French flag.
Mental, an Australian import now running for Godolphin, is among 13 set for the $2 million, Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. The race is 1,200 meters, about 6 furlongs, on the all-weather and also includes last year's winner, Krypton Factor, who has not won since. Trinniberg and Private Zone come from California. Trinniberg will make his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint in November. Private Zone has run second in four straight graded stakes for trainer Doug O'Neill. Federick Engels is in from Hong Kong where he has mixed it up with the best of the locals.
The $1 million, Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint, at 1,000 meters or 5 furlongs on the grass, would be a wide-open international affair save for the presence of Shea Shea. The South African runner, trained by De Kock, has won four of his last six races, including the local Meydan Sprint in his last outing. There is no shortage of challengers in this scramble. Joy and Fun and Eagle Regiment represent Hong Kong although the latter has been battling foot ailments this week while training. Varsity comes from Gulfstream Park in Florida off two straight stakes wins. British runner Sole Power was second to Shea Shea in the Meydan Sprint and looks primed. Mr Big represents Singapore and for the musically inclined, Russian Rock and Russian Soul will line up side by side in gates No. 8 and 9.
The $2 million, Group 2 UAE Derby is 1,900 meters or about 9 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track and picked up a dozen starters. The bulk of them are locals but the odd colt out is He's Had Enough, who is looking to use this race as a springboard to the Kentucky Derby. He's Had Enough finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and third in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Leandro Mora, assistant to trainer Doug O'Neill, said he probably needs at least the 40 points for second in Saturday night's race to have a chance to make the Run for the Roses. The 100 points for first would make that a lock.
"This is a good challenge and the O'Neill stable is known for taking challenges," Mora said Thursday. "Sometimes we try to swim against the current."
He comes into the race off a fifth-place finish in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park -- a race won by Orb, who will be one of the favorites in Saturday's Florida Derby. There would be a good deal of irony if He's Had Enough should run well at both Meydan and Churchill Downs, as the Godolphin operation has had no success in repeated attempts to win the Kentucky Derby with horses who prepped in the UAE. Sheik Mohammed might be tempted to try again, however, if Godolphin's top hope, Secret Number, should run his record to 3-for-3 Saturday. Godolphin also has Shuruq, an Elusive Quality filly who won the UAE Oaks last month, and Now Spun, also riding a two-race win streak. Trainer Richard Hannon brings Law Enforcement from England in search of a fifth straight victory.
The longest race of the night, the $1 million, Group 3 Dubai Gold, drew the shortest field. Only 10 signed on for the 3,200-meters, or about 2-miles, journey down a long chute and around the Meydan turf course. The Aidan O'Brien-trained, lightly raced Imperial Monarch makes a rare start. Godolphin has three starters in a race that is as much a puzzle as any on the card. This is the second running of the race, which last year was marred by a series of injuries, the first of which required the race to be stopped and restarted later in the evening.
The first Thoroughbred race on the card is the $1 million, Group 2 Godolphin Mile. Godolphin won the race last year with African Story and has three chances to repeat with Alpha, Time Prisoner and Moonwalk in Paris. Alpha won last year's Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga in a dead heat but has showed nothing in three intervening races. The others also are outside chances, at least for those not paying attention to the "home team" record at Meydan's biggest night. De Kock has a legitimate favorite in Soft Falling Rain, a 4-year-old colt who is undefeated in five starts but will be stepping up in class. Master of Hounds, who was fifth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and eighth in last year's World Cup, can be dangerous on a given day. Surfer has finished behind World Cup hopeful Hunter's Light in his last two races at Meydan.
The grand night of racing opens with the Dubai Kahayla Classic for Purebred Arabians, celebrating the origins of race horses on the Arabian peninsula.
Kentucky Derby preps
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Kentucky Derby field should start to take shape with the Florida Derby and the Louisiana Derby, each worth 100, 40, 20 and 10 points, respectively, to the first four finishers toward making the field in Louisville.
The $1 million, Grade I Florida Derby attracted a field of 10, with three standouts. The race is 9 furlongs on the Gulfstream Park dirt track. Orb has won three in a row for trainer Shug McGaughey, culminating in a 1/2-length upset of the now-retired Violence in the Grade II Fountain of Youth. Itsmyluckyday won the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day, then the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 26, handing Shanghai Bobby his first career defeat. Shanghai Bobby won all five of his starts as a 2-year-old, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and was the 2012 2-year-old Eclipse Award champion. There are some potential upsetters. Frac Daddy finished second in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs but was sixth in the Holy Bull. The Donegal Racing partnership may be focused on Dullahan in Saturday's Dubai World Cup but also has Pontiff in this race. He remains winless in two starts, however. Merit Man has been running in shorter races and is likely to set an honest pace on Saturday. Are You Kidding Me is making his first start on a dirt track after racing well in Canada. On paper, though, Orb, Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby appear to be the contenders. McGaughey, whose sterling resume does not yet include a Kentucky Derby win, said Orb doesn't necessarily have to win Saturday to make the Run for the Roses.
"But he has to run the right kind of a race," McGaughey said. "If he doesn't, we won't go. I want the horse to take me there."
Jack Wolf, managing partner for Shanghai Bobby's ownership, said his colt "got beat fair and square" by Itsmyluckyday in the Holy Bull.
"I hope it will move him forward," he added. "I know there's some question if he can get the distance. But with his heart and determination, my expectations are as high as ever."
The more wide-open, $1 million, Grade II Louisiana Derby got 14 entrants. I've Struck a Nerve, the 135-1 upset winner of last month's Risen Star Stakes, is sidelined with an injury but the second- and third-place finishers, Code West and Palace Malice, are back for another try. Code West is trained by Bob Baffert while Palace Malice is part of Todd Pletcher's duo that also includes Revolutionary. The latter comes off a tough win in the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct, his second victory in a row, and was made the 3-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's race. Al Stall Jr. will saddle two intriguing prospects. Sunbean has won three straight, including the Gentilly Stakes in his last outing, while Departing is undefeated in three starts, including the Texas Heritage Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park in his last time on the track. Titletown Five is making his second start of the year for trainer D. Wayne Lukas after breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs last fall. Sunbean and Departing recently were nominated to the Triple Crown, indicating Stall's optimism they might be ready to spring an upset.
"Some people nominate all their horses to the Triple Crown right away but we don't do that," the trainer said. "We waited until we thought these two horses were ready to take the next step and now we think they are ready to do that. Everything is looking good for both our horses on Saturday so we'll keep our fingers crossed."
Departing was listed at 8-1 on the morning line; Sunbean at 12-1.
Kentucky Oaks preps
After trainer Bill Mott watches his 5-year-old mare Royal Delta try to win the Dubai World Cup, he can turn his attention to New Orleans, where his Flashy Gray will try to win the $500,000, Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks over a half dozen rivals. The gray filly comes to the race with two wins and two seconds -- the last in the Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park when she could not catch frontrunner Rose to Gold. She will face some tougher competition, including the 1-2 finishers in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra over the Fair Grounds track last month -- Unlimited Budget and Promise Me More. Unlimited Budget, from the Pletcher barn, is undefeated in three starts. Seaneen Girl won the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs to cap her 2-year-old season and makes her seasonal debut for trainer Bernie Flint. So Many Ways won the Grade III Schuylerville and the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga last summer but then settled for third in her first start as a 3-year-old in a minor stakes at Gulfstream Park. Blue Violet went from a maiden win to finishing third in the Rachel Alexandra.
In Florida, six are set for the $300,000, Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks. Here, Dreaming of Julia will try to get back on track. After winning three straight last year, she finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She then was second in the Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream last month behind Live Lively, who will face off with her again. Live Lively is riding a three-race winning streak. Cue The Moon won a maiden event at Saratoga and ran a good second in the Grade III Tempted Stakes at Aqueduct in November and makes her return. Emollient has run well at four tracks, showing two wins and two seconds.
Eight are set for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II New Orleans Handicap at 9 furlongs on the main track. Among them are such stalwarts and Flat Out, Bourbon Courage, Mark Valeski and Graydar. Graydar jumped up from the allowance ranks to upset the Grade I Donn Handicap in his last outing, beating Bourbon Courage and Flat Out among others. Flat Out won the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup last year at Belmont Park and finished third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Bourbon Courage has been in the top three finishers in five straight graded stakes. Mark Valeski has missed the exacta only once in his eight-race career. Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap drew 10, headed by Optimizer. Optimizer, a 4-year-old English Channel colt, won both the Grade III Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap and the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap over the course in his last two starts for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. There also are three races on the Saturday card for Louisiana-breds, including the Crescent City Derby and the Crescent City Oaks.
Four graded stakes, two on turf and two on the dirt, join the Florida Derby and Gulfstream Park Oaks on the Saturday card.
The $150,000, Grade III Orchid Stakes for fillies and mares over 1 1/2 miles of turf got 10 entries. Among them, Starformer won the Grade III Long Island Handicap and Grade III The Very One Handicap in her last two starts for Mott. Closing Range upset the Grade III La Prevoyante Handicap at Calder two starts back. Anjaz, a Godolphin filly, makes her first U.S. after having mixed success in the British minor leagues last year. Irish Mission finished second in the Queen's Plate last year at Woodbine and won the Breeders' Stakes there. A couple others have international backgrounds.
The $100,000, Grade III Appleton Stakes is 1 mile on the grass and attracted a very competitive field of 10. Silver Max won six straight races last summer but struggled in the fall and makes his 4-year-old debut. Omayad was unbeatable in Chile but found North American racing tougher and has been away since last June.
The $150,000, Grade III Rampart Stakes finds six fillies and mares going 9 furlongs on the main track. Among them, Successful Song has won two straight stakes events at Gulfstream.
Another 10 are set for the $100,000, Grade III Skip Away Stakes, going 1 1/16 miles on the main course. Some of the more recognizable names here are Pants On Fire, O'Prado Again, Take Charge Indy, Gourmet Dinner, Flatter This and Eldaafer.
The weekend stakes here are two 6 1/2-furlong events for state-bred 3-year-olds. Each race carries a purse of $200,000 and both drew big fields. Because of the distance and lack of qualifying points, neither is likely to have an impact on the Kentucky Derby or Oaks but they promise to be rich betting opportunities.