March 30, UPI -- Thunder Snow won a nip-and-tuck stretch duel with Gronkowski on Saturday night at Meydan Racecourse, becoming the first two-time winner of the $12 million Group 1 Dubai World Cup.
The victory capped a sterling night for Godolphin, the worldwide racing behemoth created and run by Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also is the Ruler of Dubai. The "Boys in Blue" won four of the eight Thoroghbred races on the card.
It also was a good night for American runners, who won three races, including an effective "Win and You're In" race for the Kentucky Derby.
Sandwiched amid all that, Japan's superstar filly, Almond Eye, swept to her sixth win without a loss, launching her on a trajectory that could lead to a showdown in the fall with two-time Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Enable.
The weather cooperated and Gwen Stefani joined pyrotechnics to put an exclamation point on the 24th edition of the world's richest night of racing.
Thunder Snow, making just his second start of the year, wrote a new chapter of his own record book. The 5-year-old, Irish-bred son of Helmet won the UAE Derby as a 3-year-old and in 2018 became the first winner of that race to return and win the World Cup. The World Cup double also is unique.
Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said before the race he was confident Thunder Snow would be competitive on the big night despite a fading finish in his lone prep. But he and the rest of the crowd held their breath as the judges examined a photo that found Thunder Snow's nose on the wire just a fraction ahead of Gronkowski. U.S. runners filled the next four spots.
His home-court triumphs aside, Thunder Snow has had his ups and downs around the world. He famously refused to run in the 2017 Kentucky Derby and was pulled up shortly after the start. But he returned to the United States the following year to finish second in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and third in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Bin Suroor, who now has won nine of the 24 editions of the World Cup and, by his count, 191 Group 1 races worldwide, said Thunder Snow will return to America later in the year but said he already is "a horse who is going to be in history for a long time."
Coal Front got the American raiders off to a swift start as Jose Ortiz booted the 5-year-old Stay Thirsty ridgling home first in the $1.5 million Grade II Godolphin Mile Sponsored by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum City - District 1, 3/4 length ahead of last year's winner, Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal opened a big lead in the stretch and appeared home free but the 9-year-old could not withstand a steady advance by Coal Front.
Jose Ortiz, riding his first-ever race in Dubai, got the win. Trainer Todd Pletcher, busy at home with Kentucky Derby preparations, did not make the trip but also notched his first win on a World Cup night. Coal Front came to the desert on the back of two wins, the Grade III Mr. Prospector at Gulfstream Park in December and the Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park in February.
Cross Counter, making his first start since landing the Melbourne Cup Nov. 6, wore down Godolphin stablemate Ispolini in the final 100 meters to win the Dubai Gold Cup Sponsored by Al Tayer Motors by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. Call the Wind, based in France, was a distant third in the 3,200-meters marathon.
The victory opens the door for Cross Counter, a Godolphin homebred son of Teofilo, to take on some of the prestigious distance races in Europe during the summer. He finished second, just a head behind Old Persian, in last year's Group 2 Great Voltigeur at 2,400 meters during the Ebor Meeting at York after winning the Group 3 Gordon Stakes at Goodwood.
Godolphin struck again in the $2 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint Sponsored by Azizi as Blue Point confirmed his status as one of the world's top grass sprinters, closing stoutly down the lane to win by 1 1/4 length over a pair of American raiders, Belvoir Bay and Stormy Liberal, both trained by Peter Miller. Blue Point was scratched at the gate before the 2018 Al Quoz Sprint but came back to be a Group 1 winner in the King's Stand at Royal Ascot.
It was USA 1-2 in the $2.5 million UAE Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group. Plus Que Parfait, who had put in two dismal runs at Fair Grounds earlier in the year, found room on the rail in the stretch and was up to win by 3/4 length over Gray Magician, another second-place finish for trainer Miller. Plus Que Parfait, trained by former Godolphin employee Brendan Walsh, earned 100 points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby and is headed there.
The UAE Derby field included 3-year-olds who earlier in the year had participated in Kentucky Derby preps in Japan and the UK. The best of those, Japan's Derma Louvre, finished fourth at Meydan, losing any chance of a trip to Louisville. And, in a rare disappointment for Godolphin, UAE Oaks winner Divine Image faded badly late in the proceeding, beating only one rival.
Another American, X Y Jet, produced a stellar effort in landing the $2.5 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored Gulf News. The oft-injured 7-year-old Kantharos gelding had been second twice before in the race but showed during his last race in February at Gulfstream Park that he was back to peak form.
X Y Jet, with Emisael Jaramillo up for trainer Jorge Navarro, edged away in the late going to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Japan's Matera Sky. That one was trailed by two more U.S. contenders -- Imperial Hint, Promises Fulfilled.
The most-anticipated performance of the night went right to script in the $6 million, Group 1 Dubai Turf, sponsored by DP World. Almond Eye, a 4-year-old filly by the up-and-coming Japanese sire Lord Kanaloa, waited patiently down the backstretch, started picking up horses on the turn when asked by jockey Christophe Lemaire and was in full command in the final furlongs, winning by 1 1/4 lengths in her first start of the year.
As a 3-year-old, Almond Eye swept the Japanese filly Triple Crown and capped that with an easy win, in course-record time, in the Group 1 Japan Cup last November, defeating older males.
Trainer Sakae Kunieda has outlined plans to get Almond Eye to Paris in the fall, where she could face two-time Arc winner Enable, who also won last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf. That would be a match for the ages.
Throngs of Japanese fans and media came to Dubai to cheer on Almond Eye in her first overseas expedition and the celebration was on even before she crossed the finish line.
One race before the big one, Old Persian gave Godolphin another triumph, holding off a late bid by Japan's Cheval Grand, the 2017 Japan Cup winner, by 1 1/2 lengths in the $6 million Grade I Longines Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on the turf. Another Japanese runner, Suave Richard, reported third.