Arrogate provides fitting climax to Dubai World Cup night drama
If Saturday’s Dubai World Cup extravaganza were classified as a literary genre, it would have to be a thriller. From the heavy rains that reportedly flooded some Dubai streets, and turned Meydan into an unexpected sea of mud and sloshy turf, to the series of nail-biting finishes, and finally to Arrogate’s becoming a master of suspense in the Dubai World Cup (G1), fans were treated to an edge-of-your-seat drama.
The card began with the plot twists of the Godolphin Mile (G2). Sharp Azteca was always going to mix it up through a projected fast pace, but considering how well Meydan has rewarded horses with his running style all Carnival, I wasn’t too worried about it. As Dubai Racing Channel’s Laura King tweeted Friday night, however, rain speeds up the Meydan main track, and they went a lot quicker in the mud than I thought.
Sharp Azteca joined the leaders at the halfway mark in a sizzling :45.56, according to Trakus, struck the front in :57.54 at 1000 meters (about five furlongs), and began to open up in 1:09.60 – for context, that’s more than a half-second faster than the about six-furlong track record of 1:10.20! In other words, it was an unsustainable pace, and poor Sharp Azteca was understandably rubber-legged late. He tired to third, in a doubly meritorious performance considering he covered 8 meters (about 26 feet) more than the late-running winner, Second Summer. And there was reportedly a headwind on the run down the backstretch too.
Trainer Jorge Navarro had additional reason to be frustrated because he didn’t want Sharp Azteca to hit the lead that soon. While it’s hard not to take command by default when your foes are beginning to tire, Edgard Zayas didn’t need to set Sharp Azteca down at that point either.
If Zayas’ calling an audible backfired on Sharp Azteca, a change of plan worked brilliantly for Second Summer. Doug Watson, who just wrapped up another UAE training title, rerouted him to the Godolphin Mile instead of the World Cup. On the cutback in trip, adding a visor, getting the pace set-up he craves, and on a track that at least presented a level playing field, last year’s Californian (G2) winner roared last to first and edged fellow closer Ross by a neck. Second Summer now has the rest of the year to gear up for the 2018 Carnival, where he may get a crack at the World Cup.
Thus the trend of local dominance in the Godolphin Mile continued, albeit not by the most obvious candidate. North America, hitherto unbeaten on this track, was an uncharacteristic 10th after setting the pace. The Satish Seemar trainee might not have coped with Sharp Azteca’s fierce American speed anyway, but the track condition is the prime culprit in his completely throwing in the towel. North America promises to resume his forward march back on Meydan’s normally dry surface next season, when a stretch-out is on the cards, with a possible World Cup tilt in view.
The Godolphin Mile pace was actually much faster than the fractions in the about six-furlong Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), where Mind Your Biscuits could hardly have been any more dominant. Forecasting a more typical Meydan track, I was unsure whether the closer could mow them all down at this trip, or just find one or two already gone before he hit top gear. Post 14 only added to my hesitation.
But Mind Your Biscuits was so much the best that ground loss was irrelevant. Despite spinning out to the center of the track leaving the far turn, the Chad Summers trainee simply exploded in deep stretch and mauled them by three lengths. Another historical trend, of American supremacy in the dirt editions of the Golden Shaheen, was upheld. Off this evidence, Mind That Biscuits doesn’t need upwards of 6 1/2 furlongs at this level anymore.
Yet my initial inclination is to take this as a compliment to the sidelined Drefong. Had he been here as planned, would we have seen a virtual replica of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) (with Masochistic airbrushed out, of course)? Or has Mind Your Biscuits really improved so much in the interim as to threaten the divisional champion? Let’s hope for a rematch later in the year to decide the matter. And by the same token, the Shaheen result is a feather in the cap of Unified, who off a long layoff just held on from Mind Your Biscuits in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3).
Lest we jump to conclusions about a track favoring closers, look no further than the UAE Derby (G2), and the fantastic slugfest between the stalking Thunder Snow and front-running Epicharis.
For the length of the stretch, the Japanese shipper was keeping the Godolphin colt at bay. Thunder Snow threw his chance away – or so I thought – when he ducked out and lost the plot. So it was all the more remarkable that jockey Christophe Soumillon somehow gathered him together again, and he thrust his nose in front of the dogged Epicharis.
Thunder Snow covered an extra 15 meters (about 49 feet), so he performed better than the bare margin suggests. In so doing, he revived the oldest UAE Derby angle of all – the grip of Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor, who won seven of the first 12 runnings, but none since 2011.
From a Kentucky Derby (G1) perspective, Thunder Snow would run smack into the trends against horses who’ve taken the Dubai route. Epicharis’ connections have ruled the Derby out, adhering to their long-range plan for the Belmont S. (G1). That’s the American classic that fits him like a glove – a relentless gallop around the 1 1/2-mile circuit. Twitter reports suggest he could try the Preakness (G1) first.
Perhaps the UAE Derby’s most tantalizing clue for the Run for the Roses comes via the nicely staying-on third, Master Plan, also discussed as a Belmont type. The Todd Pletcher trainee advertised the merits of stablemate Tapwrit, who’d defeated him in the off-the-turf Pulpit at Gulfstream before revealing himself a proper Derby horse at Tampa. Of course, Tapwrit’s reputation was never beholden to Master Plan’s performance at Meydan, but you take an international form boost when you get one.
While the deluge made the main track an equal opportunity surface, it had the opposite effect on the turf, with the yielding going undermining the chances of some. Every horse shipping to Dubai on the premise of getting good ground was disappointed. The trip wasn’t fruitless, considering the benefit of getting a race in, possibly a check, and enjoying the Meydan hospitality, but a few might have stayed home had they known what awaited them. Three of the four turf races went to horses already proven on soft.
The exception was Japanese filly Vivlos in the Dubai Turf (G1). Untried on anything other than firm, she was an unknown quantity in these conditions, but sluiced home in the final yards as though she were made for it. Ace jockey Joao Moreira made the interesting point that Vivlos is light, and therefore didn’t sink into the ground like some of her heavier rivals. Fifth to Neorealism in the Nakayama Kinen (G2) last out, she underscores the depth of the Japanese turf performers.
Although surprising near-misser Heshem hadn’t won on soft, half-brother Xanadou (now Rainbow Chic in Hong Kong) did back in the 2012 Prix Paul de Moussac (G3). It would go beyond the evidence to claim that Heshem moved up in conditions, but they didn’t inconvenience him either. Since others were adversely affected – certainly fifth-placer Mutakayyef and possibly sixth Decorated Knight -- it’s arguable whether he would have gone as close on better going. In any event, Heshem made quite a splash for a horse whose signature win came in last summer’s Prix Eugene Adam (G2) and who’d never attempted Group 1 company before.
The top two reiterated the emerging Dubai Turf trend favoring horses with a prep under their belt. That may have counted against Godolphin’s Ribchester in the end, making his close third, off a layoff, and in his first try past a mile, a terrific effort. Progressive all through last season for Richard Fahey, he’s bound for a productive European campaign.
So is Zarak, although the Aga Khan homebred was only fourth here. As a son of Dubawi and Zarkava, he’s entitled to need upwards of 10 furlongs, and ran like it by not accelerating as sharply as the trio in front of him. Presuming trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre will step him back up in trip now, the blueblood remains a hot commodity for 2017.
The Aga Khan and de Royer-Dupre celebrated a winner earlier on the card with Vazirabad in the Dubai Gold Cup (G2). Course condition hindered a few, but probably for the minor awards at best. It’s doubtful that they would have been able to topple the defending champion in top form.
The best horse in the race, Vazirabad handles everything from good to very soft, and his win here last year was accomplished in more typical quick conditions. This time, he flew home at the end of two metric miles – Trakus recorded his final 100 meters (about a sixteenth) in :6.09 – to mug Godolphin mare Beautiful Romance. She ran with great credit, proving her stamina beyond doubt and stamping herself as a stayer to follow in her own right.
Veteran Sheikhzayedroad completed the trifecta, all coming out of the local prep, the Nad al Sheba Trophy (G3). That resurfaced a trend from the beginning years of the Dubai Gold Cup, but that depends in part on the talent shipping in fresh from Europe.
The turf race arguably most affected by the rain was the Al Quoz Sprint (G1). Local standout Ertijaal was unable to use his speed to the same lethal effect, his fireworks all dampened by the wet, and British shipper Limato was never traveling with his usual zest either. Conditions suited France’s The Right Man, who was right in his element and jumped up to a new career high.
The Bill Mott-trained Long on Value was finishing best of all to force a photo, but the wire came in the nick of time for The Right Man. Long on Value came far closer than any U.S. flagbearer in this race. Fellow American Richard’s Boy, from the Peter Miller barn, was an honorable fifth after an inconvenient start.
The lengthening of the Al Quoz from about five to six was a success in terms of the field it lured, but the yielding ground puts a giant asterisk on the result. The usual good ground would have put Ertijaal and Limato in an entirely different light. Godolphin’s Jungle Cat is another who wasn’t best served by the weather. Fourth in the shorter version of this race last year, he was fourth again at the trip that fits him much better, and he’d handily accounted for The Right Man in the final prep, the Nad al Sheba Turf Sprint.
The Right Man moved forward off that tightener, but it’s debatable whether it would have been enough on a quicker surface. He’s just the second European winner after the legend Sole Power, but I’d be wary of reading too much into it trend-wise.
Jack Hobbs was happy to have rain ahead of the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1), but the John Gosden trainee was plenty smart enough in any conditions to be a worthy winner. And after seeing how superbly he traveled at every point, I’d contend that Jack Hobbs would have won on good ground too. The only suspense was provided by jockey William Buick, who kept him on a tight rein as everyone else flailed, before at last letting him go. Jack Hobbs had the form in the book, was primed for this as a target from ages back, and caught a possibly past-his-prime Postponed and not-fully-cranked Highland Reel.
Sure, Highland Reel wants better ground, but his fading to last was more a barometer of this being a starting point, not a goal, for Aidan O’Brien. He gave way to fourth, on good ground, in this race last year, and ideas he’d be stronger this time were disabused. Defending champion Postponed’s upset loss in the Dubai City of Gold (G2) was a harbinger of his decline, but he did soldier on for third. Both beaten favorites failed to buck the trends going against them in the Sheema.
O’Brien’s filly Seventh Heaven, who might have been discomfited by the ground, excelled herself with a fine second in this first attempt versus males. Back on a sounder surface, she will make waves in Europe this term.
But Jack Hobbs was undoubtedly the star of this show, winning with any amount in hand and pledging a world-class campaign at the age of five. He’s worth the wait.
After a day highlighted by dramatic finishes and a few upsets, surely Arrogate would conclude the festivities with a tour de force in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1). And so the Longines World’s Best Racehorse of 2016 did, but only after crafting a plot worthy of the greatest suspense artists.
Had Arrogate broken alertly, taken up a stalking position, launched a potent move on the far turn, and strode clear in the stretch, we’d all laud him while thinking he did exactly what he was expected to do. But by getting off a beat slow, slammed a few times out of the gate, and finding himself last early, Arrogate tossed every reasonable scenario out of the window. How would he respond to this unexpectedly poor position, one he’d never before experienced in his career? Could he possibly pull a “Secretariat” move in the 1973 Preakness (G1) and rush up?
Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith was too cautious and patient for that, allowing Arrogate to find his footing and steadily work himself into the race. He finally regrouped on the backstretch, but was still further back than anyone could have predicted. Raise your hand now if you thought Hoppertunity would be in front of Arrogate at any point.
By putting himself behind the proverbial eight-ball, Arrogate made a fairly straightforward task problematic. He couldn’t just stalk and pounce; he had to make a sustained move even to reach contention, and then find a few more gears on top of that to overhaul Gun Runner in full flight.
And yet that’s precisely what Arrogate did, with a consummate authority that made it look oh so easy. As if tapping into boundless reserves of speed and stamina, Juddmonte Farms’ champion simply circled the field, inhaled Gun Runner, and drew off in hand. In the process, Arrogate clocked a final 400 meters (about a quarter-mile) in :23.8, a sectional you typically don’t see at the end of a 1 1/4-mile dirt race, with a last 100 meters (about a sixteenth) in a brilliant :5.62.
His Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert reacted by describing Arrogate as the best he’d ever seen himself, and more broadly, the best since Secretariat. There are simply too many variables across space and time to compare greats, or try to argue an unknowable pecking order. So for me, it’s enough to say we’ve seen greatness, with the most electric World Cup performance since Dubai Millennium’s at old Nad al Sheba in 2000.
Arrogate extended the perfect run of Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winners in the World Cup to five, while spearheading an all-American trifecta. Heroic runner-up Gun Runner is much improved from his thirds in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Travers (G1), and the Steve Asmussen trainee will make hay away from Arrogate. The Stephen Foster (G1) looks tailor-made for him. Neolithic, third behind Arrogate in the Pegasus World Cup (G1), continued his fine form in third here for Todd Pletcher, and Mubtaahij ran his heart out for fourth off just one crammed-in prep. Mike de Kock retains the faith that Mubtaahij has a big one in him somewhere.
Now Arrogate has four “big ones” on his resume, an amazing grand slam of the Travers (G1), BC Classic, Pegasus, and Dubai World Cup, which propelled him to the North American earnings record surpassing $17 million. Barring illness or injury, he may well join Tiznow as the only two-time BC Classic winners. Have we seen anyone capable of preventing him?
All photos courtesy Melanie Martines @SkimtheRail