Dubai Carnival beads: course records for Ertijaal, Championship; breakthrough for Zarak
On a night when the turf took center stage, Ertijaal served blistering notice to his prospective Al Quoz Sprint (G1) rivals. Sheikh Hamdan’s homebred not only broke the course record in last Thursday’s Meydan Sprint (G3), but did so in a way suggestive of his capacity over an extra furlong.
Not aggressive early, or all out at wit’s end, Ertijaal was simply going fast because that’s his normal cruising speed. The Ali Rashid al Rayhi trainee appeared to be traveling well within himself, comfortably stalking the leader, happy in his own zone, before leaving them for dead.
Ertijaal struck the front by the 600-meter (about three-furlong) split in :33.80, according to Trakus, and he was a sight to behold bounding away in :44.47. The Oasis Dream gelding kept on motoring to finish about five furlongs in :55.90.
Godolphin’s Jungle Cat deserves credit for his honorable pursuit, but he couldn’t get any closer than 2 3/4 lengths. There was a gap of 4 1/4 lengths back to Caspian Prince in third – an indication of how Ertijaal’s speed had torched the field.
“He is like an aeroplane,” jockey Jim Crowley told Dubai Racing Club. “He is a very good sprinter and with his remarkably long stride you just do not realize how quick you are going on him.”
Crowley’s comment on the broadcast was more colorful: it takes “a hell of an aeroplane to get him off the bridle.”
Ertijaal now owns two marks over the Meydan course, having blazed about six furlongs in 1:08.98 in a handicap back on February 27, 2015. With the Al Quoz Sprint now to be held over that trip, his history of success over longer (including two listed stakes wins at about seven furlongs) is encouraging.
But even more encouraging is the fact that a fully mature Ertijaal appears to be at the peak of his powers this term. The younger Ertijaal probably couldn’t have coped with a world-class field of sprinters over six. My view is a trifle subjective, and the fact that it’s offered from half a world away surely leaves more room for rebuttal. Still, the six-year-old model of Ertijaal strikes me as a bigger, stronger, more powerful machine than the unfurnished-looking speedster of his younger days.
Ertijaal was a close second in last year’s Al Quoz at this about five-furlong trip, his only loss in his last seven starts. If he really is even better at present, the internationals coming in for the Al Quoz on World Cup night can consider themselves forewarned.
“The 1200 meters of the Al Quoz Sprint should really suit him,” Crowley added. “I have ridden some good sprinters but he would be right up there among the best.
“For me, he’s only doing a canter for the first half of the race, I don’t see why he couldn’t gallop out over 1200 meters - he’s won over 1400 meters. He’s like a Rolls Royce. Wherever he goes, he’s an absolute joy to ride.”
Championship form: Also going from strength to strength is Championship, who blitzed to a new course record of 1:35.19 in the Zabeel Mile (G2). Nearly equaling Safety Check’s about seven-furlong mark in the Al Fahidi Fort (G2) last out, Championship readily overtook Safety Check’s 1:35.53 established in the 2015 edition of the Zabeel.
In so doing, the Ahmad bin Harmash charge put forward his case for the Dubai Turf (G1) on World Cup night. The one hesitation is that his only loss in his past four outings came in the January 5 Singspiel over the same about nine-furlong trip as the Dubai Turf. And needless to say, the internationals will make it a much deeper race too.
Yet Championship’s performance in the Zabeel Mile raises his stature in two ways. First, he successfully carried the top weight of 129 pounds, conceding three pounds to such Group 1 performers as South African Noah from Goa and Godolphin’s Cymric and still dismissing them by 2 3/4 lengths.
Also, Championship demonstrated the ability to rate off the pace before accelerating sharply, in contrast to his clever wire job in the Al Fahidi Fort. Relaxing in midpack early in the Zabeel, he fired a final 400-meter split in :22.56. If he can duplicate that kind of trip in the Dubai Turf, there’s no reason why he can’t be effective over another furlong.
Jockey Colm O’Donoghue thinks so: “He is a special horse who stays further but has the speed for shorter.”
Runner-up Noah from Goa is bound for the March 4 Jebel Hatta (G1) on Super Saturday, trainer Mike de Kock reports, as is his fifth-placer Light the Lights. Interestingly, de Kock had told his website that Light the Lights was using the Zabeel as a tune-up for the Jebel Hatta, where he will strip fitter and enjoy the added ground. Light the Lights is the last horse to beat Championship, just catching him in the Singspiel at the Jebel Hatta trip. Their Super Saturday rematch will provide a barometer of Championship’s progress.
Cymric, however, is done for the Carnival and heading back to England. Curiously, trainer Charlie Appleby told Godolphin.com that he’d point to races over seven furlongs and a mile. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t try a son of Kitten’s Joy and an Unbridled’s Song mare over further. Although he flopped in his only try at 1 1/4 miles last season, softish going (and his comeback from a layoff) might have been contributing factors.
Zarak does them proud: When you’re Zarkava’s baby boy by Dubawi, the burden of hopeful expectations can prove unrealizable. Zarak glimpsed talent last season, but judging by his excellent four-year-old bow in the Dubai Millennium (G3), the Aga Khan homebred is poised for a breakout 2017.
Twice second to the world-class Almanzor, including in the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1), Zarak brought the gaudiest formlines to bear in his first international venture. Trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre cautioned that his pupil was short on fitness, treating the about 1 1/4-mile event as a simple prep.
As it turned out, the slow early tempo turned the race into a sit-and-sprint, and Zarak didn’t need to be 100 percent cranked to win doing handstands. Taking a good hold from Christophe Soumillon in the second flight, the blueblood looked like the winner at every stage. The coiled spring was released in the stretch, and Zarak burst clear through a final 400 meters in :22.44, despite being under wraps. It might as well have been a gallop in company around his Chantilly training grounds.
“Christophe’s not doing much,” track announcer Terry Spargo observed, noting that the rider “had a good, long look at the screen.”
Considering that race honoree Dubai Millennium is his paternal grandsire, Zarak picked a fitting spot for his first career stakes laurel.
“To be fit for a Group 3 and to be fit for a Group 1 are not the same thing,” de Royer-Dupre said. “He didn’t blow after the race. He has a turn of foot, and he has learned a lot here. It was good for him. We have many options, we will have to decide with the management, the owners and the jockey.”
Soumillon’s already cast his vote in favor of shortening up for the Dubai Turf. Speaking with Racing UK immediately afterward, the Belgian ace explained that Zarak can pull early. Being headstrong in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1), which figures to have a pretty sedate pace around 1 1/2 miles, wouldn’t be a winning formula on World Cup night. Zarak projects a better trip in the Dubai Turf, where he’s eligible to sit kindlier off a better tempo before kicking on.
Christophe Soumillon seems to favour the Dubai Turf for impressive Meydan winner Zarak pic.twitter.com/T3gBZG7GDh— Meydan Racing (@DRC_Meydan) February 16, 2017
Opal Tiara dethrones the queen: While Zarak and Championship provided informative angles ahead of the Dubai Turf, the distaff side of the equation is less clear after an upset in the Balanchine (G2).
Defending champion Very Special was all the rage to repeat, and the Godolphin mare looked perfectly placed as she breathed down pacesetting Muffri’ha’s neck on the far turn. Surprisingly, Very Special came up empty at the top of the lane. When she suddenly couldn’t get past Muffri’ha, whom she’d been about to canter all over, an off-the-board finish was on the cards. And so it proved as Very Special sputtered home a subpar fifth, beating only the tailed-off Realtra.
Mick Channon’s Opal Tiara, a fast-finishing if possibly unlucky second to Very Special in the Cape Verdi (G2), capitalized to earn her biggest victory.
“We should have at least finished closer last time,” the self-critical Oisin Murphy said. “But I looked for an inside run (in the Cape Verdi) whereas she prefers to see plenty of daylight, as she just demonstrated.
“She did it well and stayed the trip nicely so perhaps the trainer will keep her at this kind of distance.”
Channon underscored the weight shift – Very Special bested Opal Tiara at levels, but had to give her three pounds here.
“We have to be delighted with that, but we were pretty confident on the revised terms with Very Special,” her trainer (and co-breeder) said. “We will sit down and think but the Dubai Turf could be a target for her on the Dubai World Cup card.”
Of course, Very Special’s disappointing effort wasn’t purely a matter of weight. And once she failed to fire, the Balanchine didn’t take much winning. Opal Tiara got her final 200 meters (about an eighth) in :12.94, allowing Via Firenze (a French all-weather performer who came in with the lowest rating) to close to her throatlatch.
I wouldn’t blame connections for swinging for the fences with Opal Tiara, who beat older males in last August’s Supreme (G3) at Goodwood. Since the Balanchine was her first attempt at the about nine-furlong trip, she could see it out more strongly next time. Still, she’ll need to progress to factor in the Dubai Turf.
Heavy Metal rebound: A distant fourth to North America in the February 11 Firebreak (G3), Heavy Metal returned triumphant on the class drop into handicap company. The Salem bin Ghadayer veteran dominated on the front end to record his second win of the 2017 Carnival, both going a metric mile.
“He’s an honest horse,” bin Ghadayer said. “When he was fourth last week, he had a bit of a high temperature just two days before the race. I decided to run him and he showed nothing. I don’t know about the new rating, but I think he’s deserved to run in the Godolphin Mile (G2).”
Heavy Metal’s official rating was bumped up to 109 following this win. As a dependable type who’s finished fourth or better in all eight starts of the current UAE season (that began in November), he could get involved for a minor share on World Cup night. But that also depends in part on who else turns up for the Godolphin Mile.
The winner of Thursday's other Carnival handicap on dirt, Stunned, had finished fourth to Heavy Metal here January 26. In his prior start, Stunned was fourth behind stablemate Cool Cowboy in the about six-furlong Al Shindagha Sprint (G3). The Doug Watson charge is happiest at this about seven-furlong distance, not to mention appreciative of the softer spot.
On tap: All eyes are on Mubtaahij as he returns to action in Thursday’s Curlin H. He’s much the best on official ratings, but de Kock is emphasizing that the son of Dubawi is vulnerable in this spot.
“He ran some cracking races in the US, but he wasn’t moving too well on his return so we had to take things quite easy with him,” he said on his website.
“He is moving well again, we’re happy with his progress but he is some way off his peak.
“Horses are not machines, they’re no switches you can flick on and off.
“The strength of this field tomorrow doesn’t matter. Mubtaahij will need the run, he is not at his best and if he doesn’t put in a satisfactory run we’ll race him again on Super Saturday next week. He will make good improvement going into the World Cup.”