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Homeracing

Dubai Carnival beads: Mubtaahij’s mission, Romance of Godolphin

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

March 3rd, 2017

Between Monday’s welcome news about Arrogate’s Dubai World Cup (G1) venture, and looking forward to the upcoming Super Saturday card at Meydan, our weekly wrap of the Carnival action is easily overshadowed. But the final Carnival Thursday program on February 23 did have World Cup night implications.

Front and center was the reappearance of Mubtaahij in the Curlin H., rebranded and enhanced to listed stakes status this season. When the entries were announced, I thought he might just get away with it on class alone, despite the 132-pound impost and his pattern of improving with races under his belt.

But when trainer Mike de Kock took to his website to forewarn anyone who’d listen, it was clear that my initial take was overly optimistic and needed revision. Not only did the ever-frank de Kock say that Mubtaahij was badly in need of the race. He further revealed why the 2015 UAE Derby (G2) hero and 2016 World Cup runner-up had gotten behind on the timetable: “he wasn’t moving too well on his return” to Dubai, so he was given the extra time to come right again. Short of saying “don’t bet him to win,” de Kock was preparing fans and bettors alike for a less-than-stellar comeback in his World Cup prep. And if Mubtaahij didn't run well enough to benefit from it, he'd have to wheel back on Super Saturday.

Then the question became which of his race-fit, in-form rivals would take advantage. Could Saeed bin Suroor’s last-out handicap scorer Alabaster actually win two in a row? Probably not. So Doug Watson’s brigade figured to be the way to go, but which one of the trio? It turned out to be Etijaah, most recently a dead-heat second to Alabaster, who picked the right day to shine under a smart ride by Sam Hitchcott.

 

A homebred racing for Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell operation, Etijaah has been a long-term UAE resident since 2013. The now seven-year-old son of Daaher has taken years to work his way up the handicap ladder, finally cracking the 100-rating mark with a November 3 victory at this track and trip. Up in class to listed company for the December 15 Entisar S., Etijaah was only fifth. So it was back to the handicap ranks, until the Curlin presented him with an opportunity.

“He is just so genuine and is happy to face the kickback,” Hitchcott said, “which makes my job so much easier as I was able to follow Mubtaahij, knowing he would give me a tow into the race.

“I was then able to pull inside and pass him when I wanted after which, with our low weight (117 pounds), I was never worried. Basically, everything fell into place tonight and it is great for the horse and everyone involved.

“He’s been a lucky little horse for me from day one…Mubtaahij got tired and we were on top of our game.”

Hitchcott pretty much summed it up. After this career high, Etijaah’s rating is now 107, still well below what’s required for the World Cup.

Mubtaahij, on the other hand, can advance to the World Cup on the back of a pleasing effort. Indeed, the son of Dubawi ran about as well as he could have in his circumstances. Conceding Etijaah 15 pounds, he traveled well, and loomed to threaten in the stretch, until he understandably ran out of steam around the 10th furlong. In defeat, he nonetheless achieved his mission in the Curlin.

“This was a big run as he was well behind in fitness,” de Kock said on his website. “I didn’t want to run him again before the Dubai World Cup as I don’t want him visit that (sand) track more than he has to. Now there won’t be a need for another prep run.”

And on the day after: “Mubtaahij pulled up fine this morning, we are happy with him,” the horseman added. “We should have him at his best come World Cup night.”

The one wish de Kock didn’t get, however, was for Arrogate to stay away. Mubtaahij’s hopes of going one better come March 25 were dealt a massive blow.

Romancing the Cup: Godolphin mare Beautiful Romance emerged as a player for the Dubai Gold Cup (G2) on World Cup night when upsetting the Aga Khan’s Vazirabad in the Nad al Sheba Trophy (G3).

Vazirabad, the reigning Dubai Gold Cup winner, is entitled to gain revenge over an extra quarter-mile next time in his title defense. After all, the Alain de Royer-Dupre trainee was resuming at an about 1 3/4-mile trip that’s a bit shorter than his ideal. And jockey Christophe Soumillon rode him as the best horse in the race, with the bigger picture in mind. Anchored at the rear and not interested in giving him a hard race, Soumillon thought about peeling out to improve position, but covered him up again.

Meanwhile, Oisin Murphy chose the right instant to move aboard Beautiful Romance, just as the field rounded the final turn. The Saeed bin Suroor mare got the jump on Vazirabad, who followed her, but couldn’t quite peg her back.

As Vazirabad was beginning to inch closer in deep stretch, Beautiful Romance drifted across his path, forcing him to steady and switch to her inside. The interference definitely affected the 1 1/2-length margin; Vazirabad was already nearing her flank when it happened, and he couldn’t regain lost momentum. At the same time, Beautiful Romance was staying on resolutely, and it’s doubtful that Vazirabad could have passed her. The stewards accordingly allowed the result to stand, but reprimanded Murphy for the incident.

 

Yet for all of the pro-Vazirabad talking points, Beautiful Romance isn’t to be overlooked come the Dubai Gold Cup. The daughter of New Approach has some pretty solid form to her name. As a three-year-old, she dispatched an older male the caliber of Gospel Choir in the August S. at Windsor. At four in 2016, Beautiful Romance was even better, kicking off with a score in the Middleton (G2) and ending on a high in Australia. A rallying seventh after stumbling at the start of the Melbourne Cup (G1), she outdueled such veteran stayers as Almoonqith and Big Orange (runner-up to Vazirabad in last year’s Dubai Gold Cup) in the Zipping Classic (G2). Beautiful Romance backed that form up here.

“In Australia, she showed she has a good turn of foot,” bin Suroor told godolphin.com. “She was too far back in the Melbourne Cup but for one furlong she finished really, really strong.

“The jockey made the difference tonight. He is a very good jockey. She beat two good horses (Vazirabad and defending Nad al Sheba Trophy winner Sheikhzayedroad) and that gives us confidence to run in the Dubai Gold Cup on World Cup night.”

“She is a lovely mare for a jockey to ride,” Murphy said, “because you can put her anywhere in a race knowing she will settle and do what you want.

“I was keen to be positive on her and went for home a long way out because I knew she would just keep galloping and find plenty if I asked her again.”

Army mobilizes: A pricey £700,000 purchase at last June’s Goffs London Sale, Viren’s Army showed little in his Godolphin debut behind Prize Money here on February 11. Trainer Charlie Appleby prescribed cheekpieces, and a cutback in trip, and new jockey Colm O’Donoghue got him into the game early. It all added up to an encouraging, if tactical, victory in an about 10-furlong turf handicap.

Viren’s Army spearheaded a Godolphin trifecta with stablemate Kidmenever (also a recent recruit from last fall’s Arc Sale), who launched a furious rally from a less advantageous position, and bin Suroor’s lightly raced Huge Future, whose break at the weights was to some degree offset by a wide trip.

 

“We fancied Viren’s Army first time to run a big race but he didn’t see the (2435 meter/about 12-furlong) trip out, that’s why we dropped to 2000 meters,” Appleby said. “He didn’t travel as well as I expected him to, that’s why I applied headgear.

“We’ll wrap them up and they’ll go into quarantine (for England) as there’s nothing for them at Super Saturday or World Cup Night. Viren’s Army had been penciled in for Australia, we might put him on the float for the Spring Carnival.”

The Irish-bred son of Twirling Candy appears best suited to this distance. His biggest win came in the about 10 1/2-furlong Dee Stakes last May at Chester, when his former connections – Middleham Park Racing and trainer Richard Hannon – had to decide whether to supplement him to the Derby (G1) at Epsom. They opted to sell instead, and a shrewd business decision it was.

Score redux: After barely staving off defeat in the Meydan Classic Trial, Godolphin’s Top Score looked vulnerable in the Meydan Classic itself. Even aside from the visual impression left by his life-and-death struggle against first-time starter Nobelium in the trial, there was the pesky fact that Top Score had been a consistent placegetter, not a win machine. Surely he’d find one (or more?) too good in the main event.

But Top Score had more improvement in him than I’d given him credit for. The bin Suroor pupil overcome an awkward, crab-like maneuver out of the gate, and a brief hold-up awaiting room in the stretch, to collar Appleby’s pacesetter Fly at Dawn. The filly Really Special rounded out the Godolphin trifecta, racing a bit too keenly early but keeping on stoutly late. Nobelium was given plenty to do, and didn’t see much daylight until the race was virtually over, so his closing fifth is better than it looks on paper.

 

As I learned thanks to track announcer Terry Spargo, Top Score also bucked a trend: no trial winner had gone on to win the Meydan Classic.

“This was a stronger race compared to the trial,” winning rider Adrie de Vries observed, “and I thought that it would be tougher for Top Score.

“I missed the break today but it worked out well because I could follow Really Special on the inside - Top Score can stop a bit in front but, as long as he can follow something, he is fine. He has tons of speed and it was only a matter of getting the space.

“He ran a good race on dirt from a wide draw (when third to Fly at Dawn) in the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial. If he had been drawn on the inside on that occasion, he would have gone close to winning.”

Bin Suroor is thinking of giving Top Score another chance on dirt in the UAE Derby (G2) on World Cup night. That’s a substantial step up in trip for a horse who hasn’t gone farther than about seven furlongs. Being by Hard Spun and out of a full sister to Raven’s Pass, he’s got a chance to cope with it, although there are concerns. But the UAE Derby would present a much stiffer class test too, beginning with stablemate Thunder Snow and Japan’s unbeaten Epicharis. 

Blondes have more fun: The UAE Oaks (G3) may also yield a runner, but not a real contender, for the UAE Derby. Following the lamentable scratch of Saudi-based UAE 1000 Guineas heroine Nashmiah (due to a respiratory infection), her form was upheld when Guineas near-misser Nomorerichblondes slogged to victory in the Oaks.

I say “slogged” because her final time of 2:01.85 is more than five seconds (!) off the about 1 3/16-mile track record (1:56.51) set by Mizbah on opening night of the Carnival. The local dirt fillies just haven’t inspired this season – hence the ability of a Saudi-bred to upstage them in the Guineas (in a slow time that day too).

Yet to be fair, they’ve tried. Nomorerichblondes dug in when challenged by Complimenti, who appeared poised to go by before her stamina failed her. And eventual runner-up Midnight Chica deserves a medal for sticking to it despite a tough trip. Posted out wide for the duration, she covered 12 more meters (about 39.4 feet), according to Trakus, yet never threw in the towel.

 

“We were unlucky last time in the Guineas but I knew this extra 300 meters would suit her,” winning rider Antonio Fresu said. “She is still a bit green and learning about the game because she had a good look around when we hit the front.

“However, when the other filly came to us she really responded gamely but I thought she would as I knew she had plenty of left.

“I was really confident as I thought she needed the trip. She was traveling very strongly on the bridle and was more confident in herself today. She’s very straightforward to ride; it’s only saddling up that she’s a bit hot.

“They say (the UAE Derby) is the only race for her so she has to (run)….She’s a small filly, she’s still growing, and against the colts it will be a bit of a hard race.”

Indeed, this doesn’t strike me as a year when the local fillies can be competitive in the UAE Derby.

Sheikh Hamdan’s triple: The maestro of Shadwell bookended the Meydan card, so it’s only fitting for him to bookend this wrap-up. Sheikh Hamdan opened the evening by winning the feature race for Purebred Arabians, the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3, with defending champion Handassa. After Etijaah gave him a double, Sheikh Hamdan made it a triple in the nightcap with the de Kock-trained Suyoof.

Australian-bred and South African-raced, Suyoof proved the point of how de Kock horses can improve from one start to the next. The Magic Albert gelding was a rattling second in his Meydan debut to Bravo Zolo, but turned the tables here, with the help of a four-pound weight shift in his favor. De Kock also sent out the near-miss third, Tahanee, who held her ground despite scrimmaging with Bravo Zolo in the pulsating finish.

 

“Suyoof is at his peak now and in good form, but there no races left for him this Carnival,” de Kock said of the Group 3 scorer, who was unplaced behind Abashiri in last year’s Gauteng Guineas (G2) and S A Classic (G1).

“We’ll put him away for the 2018 Carnival and we’ll have a nice horse to race with next season!”

Stay tuned for Super Saturday thoughts...

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