By Martin Dokoupil
The world’s leading thoroughbreds have been flocking to the horse racing capital of the United Arab Emirates these past few weeks in the hope of taking home the prized $10 million Dubai World Cup on Saturday, the world’s richest horse race, which is likely to be the open contest as, after a long time, there’s no apparent clear winner this year.
“It is the strongest race [in] about five or six years. I can’t say (who has the biggest chance),” Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Deputy Ruler, UAE Finance Minister and one of the leading horse owners and breeders, told Newsweek Middle East in the Meydan’s winners’ enclosure at a recent race.
So far American star California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of The Year, is seen to be coming on top, installed as a 9/4 favorite after cruising home barely breaking a sweat in a February 25 preparatory handicap at the opulent glass and steel Meydan racecourse in what some trainers described as almost a public workout rather than a proper race.
Godolphin’s trainer Saeed bin Suroor, who has saddled as many as seven World Cup winners since the inaugural running in 1996 including Prince Bishop, who defeated California Chrome last year, said: “To me, this year is an open race. There are so many good horses in the race.”
“I think California Chrome, he’s the horse. He has a big chance,” Suroor, who has no contender to stir the pot in this year’s big battle, told Newsweek Middle East at a recent Meydan race night.
Last year, California Chrome, whose rags-to-riches story has captivated the imagination of thousands of American racing fans, was caught off-guard in the final stretch by the rapidly closing eight-year old veteran Prince Bishop, which the winner of the first two legs of the elusive Triple Crown in 2014 failed to respond to.
This time, connections that now include breeder Perry Martin and Taylor Made Farm decided to try a different strategy, which worked for another American runner Curlin, who shipped to Dubai early to claim the 2008 World Cup trophy after a handicap win, instead of bringing their horse two weeks before the race as last year.
Now, the five-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit with a distinctive white blaze can also tick the first box after a two-length victory in the $150,000 handicap over 10 furlongs, or 2000 meters, the same distance he would need to cover in his second World Cup run on March 26. The race will only be California Chrome’s third outing after a nine-month, injury-induced layoff.
“That was the perfect prep for the Dubai World Cup,” said California Chrome’s regular jockey Victor Espinoza after the handicap. “He has again showed the track and surface suit him. Hopefully he will be hard to beat in the big race.”
Trainer Art Sherman added: “That was great; it was his second run after a long break so he will improve from it.”
Both Sherman and his son and assistant Alan, who has been in charge of prepping California Chrome for his World Cup revenge since he shipped to Dubai in late January, believe that his performance should peak in the third outing.
Last year, California Chrome’s lengthy racing absence saw American Pharoah steal the limelight after snatching the challenging Triple Crown series in 2015 as the first horse since Affirmed 37 years ago.
Claiming the biggest $6 million slice for the World Cup winner would mean that California Chrome, whose earnings are now estimated at as much as $6.5 million, could trump the legendary Cigar who won the first running of the World Cup in 1996, retiring as the leading money-earning U.S. thoroughbred with nearly $10 million.
That would be more than a generous stud retirement plan for the horse, who currently holds the world’s highest rating of 121 along with Duramente and Postponed according to Longines and was bred by Perry Martin and Steve Coburn for as little as $10,000.
But while the handicap was an easy trip despite carrying as much as 7 kilograms more than his challengers, the World Cup is likely to require from California Chrome to find another gear if he wants to fend off rivals such as Godolphin’s top contender from overseas, Frosted, or locally trained Special Fighter, a surprising record-breaking winner in round three of the Al Maktoum Challenge on March 5, the official preparatory race for the big night.
While foreign raiders use the dirt race track at Meydan to fine tune their performance ahead of the World Cup, Frosted, just one notch behind Chrome in the world rankings, has an advantage of being able to avoid the morning track work buzz of Meydan and the ongoing media scrutiny.
Hidden under radar at Godolphin’s Marmoom Stables of trainer Charlie Appleby, the four-year old Wood Memorial victor can enjoy all the perks of the private training complex of UAE Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum located among sand dunes on the Dubai outskirts, some 30-minute drive from Meydan.
At odds of 3/1, just after California Chrome, Frosted is now seen as the best shot of Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘boys in blue’ at yet another World Cup glory, improving from 9/2 a month ago.
“I have never seen him better,” says Neal McLaughlin, assistant to his brother and trainer Kiaran, who has been looking after Frosted for most of his life. “And I kind of wish the race was this (past) Saturday. We are ready to go and I have to wait until the day but he’s doing really well,” he told Newsweek Middle East after a morning work at the Marmoom dirt track.
Trained in the United States, the grey son of Tapit with Godolphin’s retained jockey William Buick in the saddle wiped out his rivals by five lengths in round two of the $250,000 Group two Al Maktoum Challenge on February 4, shattering a track record over 1,900 metres just 12 days after landing in Dubai. He ran so well that Sheikh Mohammed decided to skip round three of Al Maktoum Challenge to keep the horse fresh, changing the initial plan, McLaughlin said.
In his recent workouts, Frosted went six furlongs in 1 min 12.4 seconds and clocked 60.1 seconds for a five-furlong gallop, according to Godolphin.
McLaughlin, sporting Godolphin’s trademark blue T-shirt and a baseball cap, says Frosted, who won the February Al Maktoum challenge coming from a three-month layoff that followed a disappointing seventh place in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on October 31, may now run a little bit closer to the pace than in his previous U.S. outings as he clearly benefited from the break.
“He’s going to be close to the pace because he’s so fresh this year and the way he’s training. He’s thriving here,” he said.
“Ideally, we will get a nice post draw. We do not want to be well inside, we don’t want be all over outside. Just in the middle somewhere we’d like to break,” McLaughlin says.
The closely-watched World Cup post position draw is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the Meydan racecourse.
“I would love to see him third or fourth somewhere in there, tracking the speed horses and he makes his move down the lane and that would be ideal,” he added.
The Dubai World Cup night with an overall prize money of $30 million in nine races is a chance for the Dubai large expatriate community to dress up the Royal Ascot-style to attend the impressive glass and steel Meydan racecourse with seating capacity of some 60,000 spectators. Unlike in Britain or the United States, betting on site is prohibited and online betting sites are blocked in the UAE, however, visitors can enter forecasting contests for a shared cash pool. One called the Pick 6 paid up to 150,000 dirhams ($40,830) for correctly selecting six winners last year.
Behind Chrome and Frosted, Special Fighter, owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Mohammed al-Maktoum and Qatari challenger Mshawish are seen as an equal chance at 12/1.
Trained by Musabah al-Muhairi, Special Fighter was beaten to the sixth place by Frosted in round two of Al Maktoum Challenge on February 4 but his performance was said to had been hampered by a lost shoe.
The five-year old son of Teofilo showed his true colors a month later in round three, dominating the race over the same distance as the World Cup to crack the track record, clocking 2:03.01 under jockey Fernando Jara.
“He was absolutely spot on today,” said Jara, who claimed the Dubai World Cup winner in 2007 Invasor trained by Kiaran McLaughlin at the time. “He just relaxed out in front and was always going well within himself. He then picked up well when I asked him. It was a great performance.”
Another mighty contender is Al Shaqab Racing’s Mshawish, trained by Todd Pletcher, who won by a two-length margin the G1 Donn Handicap in the United States on February 6.
American Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who tasted the World Cup victory twice, with Silver Charm in 1998 and Captain Steve in 2001, is sending Hoppertunity, a 16/1 chance after winning by nose the G2 San Antonio Stakes on February 6.
The strong field for the big race is also sporting Mike de Kock-trained Mubtaahij, the 2015 UAE Derby winner, Hong Kong’s Gun Pit, the runner-up in round three of Al Maktoum Challenge, and Japan’s seven-year old veteran Hokko Tarumae, who finished fifth in the 2015 World Cup.
Curlin’s son Keen Ice, the only horse to defeat champion American Pharoah last year, is currently seen as a 25/1 outsider after a disappointing performance in round three of the Al Maktoum Challenge – his preparatory Dubai race, where he only managed to finish seventh out of 12 runners, 11.75 lengths behind track-burning Special Fighter.
But Neal McLaughlin believes the result could have been different if the pace was faster as Keen Ice prefers to sit back and make a late run.
“Track bias really got him. It’s hard to make a run when the first half mile is 51 and 3. In America, we would be running against 47, maybe hoping for 46 and change, 48 would be slow. And they went 51 and 3. That kind of throws the race out really so Keen Ice had really no chance to close,” he added.