Dubai World Cup night, a highlight of the racing year, unfolds Saturday at Meydan with $30 million in purses at stake, along with prestige and national pride.
Including the Dubai program, the weekend offers three potential tickets to the Kentucky Derby and two legs of the Global Sprint Challenge.
We'll sprint right to it:
The Dubai World Cup has grown from an ambitious vision to the premier night of racing anywhere in the world. This year's renewal attracted the world's top-rated dirt horse, Arrogate, and rivals from as far afield as Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, Uruguay, Ireland, France and the United Kingdom to contest eight Thoroughbred races and one for Purebred Arabians in front of the plush Meydan grandstand.
For the first time South Korea has a contender, hoping to evaluate the strength of its new breeding industry.
The "enchilada" (see below) is the $10 million Dubai World Cup itself, with a distinctly American flavor. Trainer Bob Baffert will saddle Arrogate, ranked the world's best horse in a tie with Australian turf runner Winx, and Hoppertunity. Gun Runner, Keen Ice and Neolithic complete a massively strong U.S. team.
Baffert, already twice a World Cup winner, exuded careful optimism Wednesday as the field was set for Saturday's $10 million Dubai World Cup.
"This will be his toughest test," Baffert said of Arrogate, who has reeled off consecutive victories in the Grade I Travers, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Grade I Pegasus World Cup. In the last two of those, he defeated the 2016 Dubai World Cup winner, California Chrome. "But he's a big, strong horse and if he shows up and runs his race, he wins it."
The post positions for the big race were hidden under statues of falcons at Wednesday's post-position draw. Baffert grabbed his and stared at the digit 9. "I thought that was a 6," he quipped. A few moments later, he drew No. 12 for Hoppertunity, who was third in last year's World Cup.
"He always gets a piece of it," Baffert said of Hoppertunity. "We're hoping that one of these days, he gets the whole enchilada."
The others in the 14-horse field know that if Arrogate runs his race, they will be battling for the minor prizes -- which are not so minor. Second pays $2 million; third, $1 million.
"Thanks to the generosity of the Dubai Racing Club, you don't have to win to have a successful trip here," said Jerry Crawford of Donnegal Racing, which sends out Keen Ice. Still, he added, "It would be nice not to be Bob Baffert's warm-up act once."
Gun Runner, whose season was interrupted when he was trapped on the Fair Grounds backstretch due to a quarantine at the New Orleans track, drew gate No. 5 -- four spots inside Arrogate. Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen, said the team would have opted for gate 5 or 6, "so we're happy."
Mubtaahij, who finished second to California Chrome in last year's World Cup, drew No. 14 -- a tough go because of the configuration and nature of the track. Trevor Brown, assistant to trainer Mike de Kock, said: "What can we do? We're very happy with his progress since his last race. You have to take what you get."
One to watch in a field that with many possibilities after Arrogate is Move Up, owned by the Godolphin Racing team and trained by Saeed bin Surror. Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, master of Godolphin, and creator of the Dubai World Cup, has been known to put his own money back in his pocket with surprising victories on World Cup night and Move Up has shown great potential.
Move Up was fourth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3. But Suroor noted that was his first race since last October and he wasn't fully fit. "He was about 80 percent. He needed the race," bin Suroor said at Thursday morning's "Breakfast With the Stars" at Meydan. "I have confidence in the horse that he has a chance to run a nice race."
Others to watch include the winner of the Maktoum Challenge Round 3, Long River; a Chilean-bred mare, Furia Cruzada; Japan's Awardee and Gold Dream; and Lani, who won last year's Grade II UAE Derby, competed in all three U.S. Triple Crown races, then tailed off when shipped back to Japan for the fall.
The rest of the World Cup program is equally rich in talented horses and handicapping challenges.
The $6 million Group I Longines Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,400 meters on the turf has only eight starters but they're a quality bunch headed by last year's winner, Postponed, and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Highland Reel.
The $6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf at 1,800 meters was thrown wide open with the late scratch of last year's winner, Real Steel, but the field still includes some of the best middle-distance grass runners in the world.
The $2 million Group 1 Golden Shaheen is 1,200 meters on the dirt with Americans Mind Your Biscuits and Stallwalkin Dude high on the list. But this condition has been hotly contested during the Dubai season and the locals might have a lot to say in Saturday's outcome.
The $1 million, Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint has been extended to 6 furlongs on the grass and takes over from the Golden Shaheen as the second leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, which offers a $1 million bonus to a horse winning three legs in three different countries. Hong Kong runner Amazing Kids is in a very international mix here.
The $2 million, Group 2 UAE Derby offers 100 Kentucky Derby points, meaning the winner essentially is guaranteed a spot in the Run for the Roses. More on this race below.
The $1 million Dubai Gold Cup is run at 2 miles on the grass and drew a nicely competitive field of stayers representing Singapore and the UAE as well as the usual suspects from England and Ireland, where this sort of thing is most common.
The $1 million Group 1 Godolphin Mile on the grass kicks off the night's festivities with Triple Nine carrying the Korean hopes.
The Road to the Roses
The $2 million UAE Derby at Meydan is the richest -- both in purse money and in Kentucky Derby points -- of the three Kentucky Derby preps on the weekend card. The others are Saturday's $500,000 Grade III JACK Cincinnati Casino Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky and Sunday's $800,000 Grade III Sunland Derby in New Mexico.
The UAE Derby awards 100 Kentucky Derby points to the winner -- enough to ensure a spot in the Run for the Roses. But one of the 16, Epicharis, already is ensured a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate thanks to the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, separate from the main points-earning proceedings.
Epicharis, a grandson of Sunday Silence, qualified by winning the Hyacinth Stakes in Tokyo in February. There's another Japanese runner in the UAE Derby -- Adirato, who finished second in the Hyacinth. Should he win Saturday's race, Japanese horses could claim two of the maximum 20 spots in the Run for the Roses.
There are plenty of other potential winners in the UAE Derby, though, including the winner of the UAE 2,000 Guineas, Thunder Snow, owned by Godolphin and this week made a late nominee to the U.S. Triple Crown. American trainers Kenny McPeek and Todd Pletcher contribute one colt each to this multinational field.
The Spiral, run over Turfway's all-weather surface, is a wide-open affair with a field of 12. Some are grass runners, others have had success on all-weather tracks and still others will have their first experience on that footing.
Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has pegged Kitten's Cat as the 4-1 morning-line favorite for the Spiral, based on a good record in the turf in venues from Kentucky to California to New York. Grass runners Soglio and Parlor, and the more versatile King and His Court also rate highly on the morning line. Given the surface, the race usually is not a Kentucky Derby indicator but it does award 50 points to the winner and, with the 3-year-olds in a bit of a scrambled state, it's worth paying attention.
The Sunland Derby, despite a field of 12, could be a rematch of last month's local Mine That Bird Derby, featuring the 3-year-olds who finished first, second and fourth in that affair. That would be Conquest Mo Money, who is undefeated in three starts, all at Sunland; Irap, who was second in both the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity and the Grade III Robert B. Lewis but couldn't catch the front-runner in the Mine That Bird, and Wine N Devine, who was a distant third.
Several of the others in the Sunland showed promise until they tried the big time. There also are a couple recent maiden winners. If Irap should win, the Tiznow colt would have to be considered a serious Kentucky Derby candidate. The others might need to show more outside their own back yard. This race also is worth 50 points to the winner.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Sunday's $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks includes fillies from both coasts as well as some ambitious locals. Noted and Quoted won the Grade I Chandelier at Santa Anita last fall for trainer Bob Baffert but then finished a fading seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and makes her first run back in this heat. Todd Pletcher brings Ghalia from Gulfstream Park, where the Medaglia d'Oro filly won both her previous starts. Past performances indicate a good early pace, which could generate some surprises.
Delphinia, a daughter of The Factor, looks like a key factor in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Bourbonette Oaks on the Turfway Park all-weather. The Wesley Ward trainee has progressed nicely through three straight starts over the track but faces two turns for the first time. Another local, Gilded Lily, is 2-for-2 and worth a look. Among the others, one might think that starting a horse named Darkwingsoverdubai might be an ill omen on Dubai World Cup day. But this filly is by Raven's Pass, out of the Malibu Moon filly Dubai Moon. And she is 2-for-2 over the Golden Gate Fields all-weather surface. China Grove won a minor stakes at Laurel Park in her last outing but has never raced on the all-weather.
Saturday's Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo Racecourse has a lot going for it: It is the third leg of the Global Sprint Challenge and the first Group 1 turf race of the year in Japan. What it does not have is a favorite. Last year's top Japanese sprinter and Takamatsunomiya runner-up, Mikki Isle, has been retired. A likely top pick, Dance Director, was injured Feb. 23 and, just two days later, the connections of Big Arthur announced that the 2016 record-setting champion was out of the Takamatsunomiya due to injury. Thus, the 1,200-meters dash will provides some wagering opportunities for sharp analysts.
Friday's Group 1 Keogh Homes William Reid Stakes at Moonee Valley has a dozen sprinters set to go 1,200 meters. Among the higher-rated are Rebel Dane, Flamberge, The Quarterback and Japonisme.
Our Ivanhowe, fresh off an upset win over Hartnell in the Group 1 Ranvet Stakes, returns on a week's rest to contest Saturday's Group 1 The BMW at Rosehill Gardens. He's tackling the likes of Exospheric, who finished third in the Group 1 Australian in his start, and Who Shot the Barman, who was third behind Winx in the Group 1 Chipping Norton Stakes two starts back. This one is run at 2,400 meters.
Saturday's Group 1 Vinery Stud Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Rosehill Gardens presents an opportunity for redemption for La Bella Dioza. The New Zealand-bred filly won four straight races, including the New Zealand 1,000 Guineas and the Group 2 Surround Stakes at Randwick, before reporting last of 19 in her most recent start, the Group 1 Coolmore Classic. Trainer Matt Brown said a minor inflammation in the filly's airway has been cleared since the Coolmore flop.