In the last sentence of the last news conference after the last race on the Dubai World Cup program, jockey Christophe Soumillon delivered the day's best line.
"If he goes to Churchill Downs," Soumillon said, "I will need a blindfold because I will not go in the gate!"
Soumillon was referring to Thunder Snow, the colt he had just ridden to a decisive, front-running victory in the $10 million Group 1 Dubai World Cup. And ebullient trainer Saeed bin Suroor was talking about taking the 4-year-old Helmet colt back to the United States later in the year.
That jolted Soumillon's thoughts away from the joy of the moment and back to May of 2017 when Thunder Snow entered the Churchill Downs starting gate as one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby. When the bell rang, he refused to run, bucking and rearing until Soumillon pulled him up just yards from the start. No one has been able to explain the strange behavior. But Soumillon will never forget.
"It's just an amazing story," Soumillon said. "I think we have to write a book about him."
There was no such misbehavior at Meydan as the Dubai World Cup capped a stellar program that also unveiled an Irish-trained colt as an early favorite for this year's Kentucky Derby.
Thunder Snow jumped right out of the outside, No. 10 gate, shot to the lead before the first turn and was gone. The favorite, Bob Baffert trainee West Coast, gave it his best into the stretch but then Thunder Snow kicked away to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Baffert nailed down second and third with West Coast and 2015 UAE Derby winner Mubtahij.
"I didn't feel any pressure at any time in the race," Soumillon said.
The Thunder Snow cause was aided greatly when North America, who defeated him in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 in their last start, missed the break badly. North America had been expected to contest the lead and his absence left a clear path for Thunder Snow, who finished the 1 1/4 miles in course-record time of 2:01.38.
"The jockey made the horse win the race," said bin Suroor, who saddled his eighth Dubai World Cup winner. "I told him, 'If you can jump and be handy, you have a chance to win the race.'"
Bin Suroor said the plan now is to give Thunder Snow a rest in preparation to "take him to European racing and maybe back to America." There, the likely target would be the Breeders' Cup Classic or the Breeders' Cup Turf. And this year's Breeders' Cup is to be run at Churchill Downs.
Cue Soumillon's nightmare.
Before we get to the rest of the World Cup program (hint: Godolphin did well!), let's take a look at:
The Road to the Roses
A big chunk of the Kentucky Derby field was set this weekend as Ireland-based Mendelssohn ran off with the UAE Derby in Dubai, Gronkowski earned a spot with a victory in England and Audible dominated the Florida Derby.
Mendelssohn's 18 1/2-lengths victory on Dubai World Cup night was particularly impressive as the Scat Daddy colt, a half-brother to Beholder and winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, was making his first start on dirt and first beyond a mile. Trainer Aidan O'Brien listed both of those issues as question marks about his suitability for the Kentucky Derby.
Mendelssohn and jockey Ryan Moore answered the questions quickly enough. Mendelssohn got out cleanly, quickly outsprinted UAE Oaks winner Rayya and cut across her to the rail. That spot secured, Mendelssohn proved he was more than worth the $3 million the Coolmore partners paid for him as a yearling. Rayya gave chase and beat the others and, barring mishap, will move on to the Kentucky Oaks.
Reride, winner of the Mine That Bird Derby in New Mexico, earned 20 points for finishing third but remains in a five-way tie for the 26th spot in the Derby field, probably outside looking in. Japanese colt Ruggero finished next-last of nine in the UAE Derby. However, he holds the No. 1 dibs on the current "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" list and still could make the Louisville starting gate through that portal if his Dubai performance was not too discouraging to his connections.
M.V. Magnier, representing Mendelssohn's owners, said there were big hopes for the colt from the start. The Kentucky Derby, he said, "was obviously the dream. If we could get him to be half as good as Beholder ..."
And he said improvement still could be in the cards. "Ryan said when he got off him he was still a little green."
Audible, running in the China Horse Club silks, took back behind a quick early pace in Saturday's $1.1 million Grade I Xpressbet Florida Derby. The Into Mischief colt started picking up steam halfway down the backstretch, circled the leaders and was in front as they straightened for home.
From that point, it was all Audible. Despite drifting a bit in the final sixteenth, he won by 3 lengths over Hofburg with Mississippi another 7 3/4 lengths back in third. Highly regarded Catholic Boy was never involved and finished fourth. Audible ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.48, some 2.5 seconds off the track record set by Arrogate in the 2017 Pegasus World Cup.
Audible, trained by Todd Pletcher, posted his fourth straight win, all of them by open lengths, and soared to the top of the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard.
"It was similar to what we did with Always Dreaming last year," Pletcher said. "We knew we had to perform well in the Florida Derby or we weren't going to accumulate enough points to get in. But we also all felt like if you don't run well in your final prep, then you're probably not going to Churchill anyway.
"The most important thing is we thought he ran a huge race in the Holy Bull. We didn't feel that there was a benefit to running him back in between, that we could hopefully take another step forward by giving him some space between those races and the fact that the Florida Derby is a Grade I is super-important to a stallion like he's going to be."
Trainer Bill Mott said Hofburg, who earned 40 points, still is a candidate for the Kentucky Derby. So, too, is Fountain of Youth winner Promises Fulfilled, who set the hot pace Saturday before fading to finish last. The colt won the Fountain gate-to-wire. "You live by the sword, you die by the sword," said trainer Dale Romans.
Gronkowski fell well back in the 32Red Burradon Stakes on the Newcastle all-weather course on Friday night but rallied along the stands-side rail under steady urging by jockey Jamie Spencer and got there in time to nail down the win. Iconic Sunset and Dark Acclaim filled the minor placings.
Gronkowski, a Kentucky-bred Lonhro colt, earned 30 points in the final race of the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" and ended atop that leader board. Trainer Jeremy Noseda indicated earlier the colt, now the winner of four in a row, is a definite candidate for Louisville.
The World Cup
While Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was most ecstatic over Thunder Snow's rollicking win in the World Cup, Godolphin had an overall spectacular night under the desert moon. The "boys in blue" won four of the eight races on the card and Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby finally joined the ranks of World Cup night winners.
One of Godolphin's winners, Hawkbill, almost didn't get a chance to start in the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic. Backed out after a ruckus in the gate, he got a close eye by the track veterinarian before he was allowed to re-enter the stalls. After that, it was all Hawkbill. The Kentucky-bred son of Kitten's Joy went quickly to the front under William Buick and at the end of 2,400 meters on the turf, he was still there, 3 lengths ahead of Poet's Word. Cloth of Stars was third.
"You couldn't have designed it any better," Appleby said of Hawkbill's win. "William gave him a tremendous ride, as he always does ... Going into it we were hopeful he'd run well and we'll look at a race in Hong Kong at the end of May. We'll let the horse decide," he said. The Hong Kong race would be the Group 1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup on May 6, one of the few 2,400-meters events on the Hong Kong calendar.
Trainer Saeed bin Suroor rated Benbatl one of his and Godolphin's best chances on the night and the 4-year-old Dubawi colt did not disappoint, emerging from the pack at the top of the straight, then drawing off to win the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf Sponsored by DP World by 3 1/4 lengths. Defending champion Vivlos, led a trio of Japanese runners to fill out the first four in the 1,800-meters test on the turf.
"He's very talented," said Benbatl's jockey, Oisin Murphy. "Today he had a good trip, and he showed his class. I'm living the dream." That dream, the hard-working rider added, included 11 a.m. Easter Sunday Mass and a quick trip back to England to ride Monday at Wolverhampton.
Bin Suroor added Benbatl "has won his Group 3 and Group 2 and now he has won his Group 1, which is great to see. He will have a break now and then he will go for the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot."
The $2 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News, 1,200 meters on the dirt track was, as expected, an American tour de force -- but not quite in the order many anticipated. Mind Your Biscuits, winner of this race last year but loser of four straight, dropped far back early and had to come with a rush down the lane to edge X Y Jet, the 2016 runner-up, by a head. Reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Roy H was only 3/4 length farther back in third.
"He lost four in a row but we had reasons for all four," said winning trainer Chad Summers. "We beat two of the best sprinters in the world. And they showed up." Summers said the winner's share of the $2 million purse advanced Mind Your Biscuits' career earnings to more than $3.7 million, making him "the richest New York-bred in history."
Summers said with a laugh he might have to take the 5-year-old son of Posse to Royal Ascot to find a topper for two straight wins in Dubai. "Everything is in play," he said.
Godolphin took down the evening's turf dash, the $1 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint, with an unlikely scenario. The favorite, trained by Charlie Appleby was a late scratch at the gate, leaving jockey William Buick without a ride. Up stepped Jungle Cat, also trained by Appleby, to save the day was a determined, 1/2 length victory over reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Stormy Liberal. Conquest Tsunami was third.
"I said before the race that if Blue Point was to falter tonight, then Jungle Cat would be there to pick up the pieces," said Appleby, who earned his first victory on a World Cup night.
"I don't know what happened with Blue Point but there just seemed to be a trickle of blood from his nose. Once he was withdrawn I knew I had to compose myself as Jungle Cat was in the form of his life. The team has done a fantastic job and I am delighted to win."
The $1 million Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup sponsored by Al Tayer Motors at 3,200 meters is the longest slog on World Cup night and now seems to be the private preserve of Vazirabad. The Aga Khan's runner won the event for the third straight year on Saturday, although that outcome certainly seemed unlikely until late in the race.
With Christophe Soumillon riding, the 6-year-old son of Manduro lagged well behind the leaders the first time past the stands and all the way down the backstretch. But as the early contenders labored, Vazirabad was getting a second wind. He blew by them all to score by 1 length over local favorite Sheikhzayedroad. Rare Rhythm, another of Godolphin's hot prospects, finished third.
"How the race was run was perfect for him," said winning trainer Alain De Royer-Dupre. "I always said that we never had him better than today. He was so relaxed and calm before the race and the pace was very strong. And the more pace, the better for him."
Soumillon added, "All the wins have been different but to do it three times is history. Hopefully there will be more in the future and he can be back again next year."
Heavy Metal, under Ryan Moore, got the night off to a front-running start in the $1 million Grade II Godolphin Mile on the dirt. The 8-year-old Exceed and Excel started from gate No. 9 but quickly got to the front and over to the rail. From then on, it was clear sailing and he won by 2 lengths over Muntazah. A Japanese runner, Adirato, was third as Heavy Metal finished in 1:36.21.
Heavy Metal finished fourth in his previous start after conceding the early lead. Saturday, said trainer Jadhav Sandeep, "He broke well and I was very confident." Moore added the quick move to the rail "was a big advantage."
Back to North America:
Coach Rocks got rolling in the stretch run of Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks, got by pacesetting favorite Take Charge Paula in the final furlong and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over that one. Princess Warrior finished third. Coach Rocks, a daughter of Oxbow, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.63 with Luis Saez riding the for trainer Dale Romans.
Coach Rocks took seven tries to get her first win, finally turning the trick with a front-running score on Valentine's Day over the course and distance.
"She figured the game out," Romans said. "I never expected her to lose. Every time I've brought her over, I thought she would win. It took time for her to figure it out that she is as good as she is.
"I'm going home," said Romans, a Louisville native. "We'll be in Barn 4 (at Churchill Downs) tomorrow and start getting ready for the first Friday in May.
Flamboyant rallied from far back in the field to win Saturday's $200,000 Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields by a neck over Editore. Many Roses was third. Flamboyant, a French-bred gelding by Peer Gynt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.15 with Julien Couton in the irons.
Hi Happy settled in second in Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Pan American at Gulfstream Park, challenged pacesetter One Go All Go turning for home and prevailed by 2 3/4 lengths over that rival. Classic Covey was third and the favorite, Sadler's Joy, improved from last in the stretch to finish fourth. Hi Happy, an Argentine-bred son of Pure Prize, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:23.85 with Luis Saez in the irons, scoring his first win in six tries since coming north at the end of the 2016 season.
Filly & Mare Turf
Lull led virtually all the way in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park, then held on in the final strides to win by a nose over long shot Res Ipsa. The favorite, On Leave, was 1/2 length farther back in third. Lull, a 4-year-old War Front filly, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.14 with Jose Ortiz in the irons.
Figarella's Queen, coming off a maiden win a month earlier, led from gate to wire in Saturday's $150,000 Sanibel Island for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park. At the wire, the Medaglia d'Oro filly held on by a nose over Ferdinanda with Got Stormy finishing third. Figarella's Queen, with Luis Saez riding, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.95.
Summersault rallied by Empressof the Nile in deep stretch to win Friday's $75,000 Soaring Softly Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 1 1/2 lengths. Shesaprado was third with a late bid at a big price. Summersault, a 6-year-old Rock Hard Ten mare, ran 1 3/8 miles on firm turf in 2:13.05 with John Velazquez at the controls. The victory snapped an eight-race losing streak that exended back just two days short of one year, when Summersault won the Grade III Orchid Stakes.
Conquest Big E led all the way to a 3-lengths victory in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Hardacre Mile, spoiling the return of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, who settled for second. Tommy Macho was 1 1/2 lengths farther back in third and the favorite, Irish War Cry, was eased in the stretch, finishing last of six.
Conquest Big E, a 5-year-old Tapit gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.92 with Jose Batista up. He had not won since July of last year. Always Dreaming, now winless in four starts since his triumph in the Run for the Roses, was making his first start since finishing a fading ninth in the Grade I Travers at Saratoga last summer.
Elsewhere on the international front:
The All-Weather Championships
Good racing trumped some nasty weather in the Good Friday finals of the All-Weather Championships at Lingfield Park but it was the French raiding party that caused the most commotion.
The increasingly popular wintertime flat racing program also might have turned another page with one winner now shooting for a chance in a Hong Kong Group 1 race and another eyeing some of the major staying races on the British summertime calendar.
It was a portent of things to come when Funny Kid, under Maxime Guyon, edged Lord George by a nose at the end of 1 mile and 7 furlongs in the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship. Watersmeet and Red Verdon, the joint favorites, were third and fourth. Funny Kid, a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Lemon Drop Kid, is trained in France but qualified for the finals with a victory at Wolverhampton in January.
"It was a great win," said trainer Christophe Ferland. "The pace was not very fast and that suited Funny Kid very well. The horse in front gave us a good lead and, although the winning distance was short, he won! Funny Kid likes good ground so we will keep him going through the summer, we may come back to the UK for the staying races.''
Diagnostic, the favorite, tracked the leaders in the The 32Red Fillies' and Mares' All-Weather Championships, emerged with the lead a furlong out and went on to win by 1 length over Carolinae. Lucymai was third. Diagnostic, a 4-year-old Dutch Art filly trained by William Haggas, upped her all-weather record to 4-for-6. "Once she broke nicely, there were plenty of options open as to how to ride her and there was no pace really, so I was happy to sit second," said winning rider James Doyle. "Everything went to plan - it was very straightforward and she is back on track."
City Light landed a second blow for the French raiders in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championships at 6 furlongs. Ridden by Theo Bachelot, the 4-year-old Siyouni colt quickened sharply through the final furlong and swept by the favorite, Kachy, to a 1 1/2 lengths victory. Kimberella was third. City Light came to Lingfield off an upset victory in the Prix Anabaa over the Deauville Polytrack March 3.
"There is no better place to come and win than Lingfield," said City Light's trainer, Stephane Wattel. "It was my dream to win here." He now is dreaming bigger, having entered City Light for the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize on the Sha Tin turf in Hong Kong April 29. "I hope they look at his race today and he has the chance to go there in a month's time," the trainer said. He is among 44 entries for the race.
Corinthia Knight briefly restored order in the 32Red Three-Year-Old All-Weather Championships Conditions Stakes at 6 furlongs as the odds-on favorite hit the lead a furlong out and held on well to win by 1/2 length over Lake Volta. Rock On Baileys was a neck farther back in third.
Corinthia Knight, a 3-year-old colt by Society Rock, scored his fourth straight win, all on all-weather surfaces, for trainer Archie Watson. "I knew I was on the best horse," said winning rider Oisin Murphy. "I just didn't want to mess it up. He jumped nicely and he was always going to win from where he was ... "He is pretty good on turf as well. It's just he has not run as much on it."
Calm didn't reign long, though, as yet another French pillager, Lucky Team, came flying down the outside to deny hot favorite Second Thought by 1 1/4 lengths in the Sunbets All-Weather Mile Championships. Hot Favorite had been undefeated in six all-weather starts and, as winner of last year's 3-year-old event, was bidding to become the first horse to win two different races on All-Weather Championships Finals Day. Lucky Team, at 40-1 odds, put paid to that. Goring, a German-bred but English-raced 6-year-old added further international flavor to the outcome, finishing third.
"Lucky Team is a very good horse, a very good-looking horse and a very talented horse," said trainer Joel Boisnard. "We came here with the hopes that he would run well, but did not expect him to win and in a course record time! Unfortunately, he is not as good on the Turf as he is on the All-Weather - if he were, he'd be a superstar!"
The day's feature, the Betway Easter Classic over 10 furlongs, went to the joint favorite, Victory Bond, another from the Haggis yard. The 5-year-old Medicean gelding was held in mid-field by jockey James Doyle, took the point with a furlong to run and held off Master the World at the end by 1/2 length. Abe Lincoln was third.
"That was pretty good today," Doyle said. "We got a dream run round and he showed what he can do. We were able to wait until we got into the straight, because I had the room to do so, and when I pressed the button it was pretty good.
"Today could not have panned out any better and he came through to win in dominant fashion today. I knew Master The World would be finishing, but it was very easy.