Dubai Carnival beads: World Cup night landscape after Super Saturday, I
Special Fighter photo courtesy Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins.
Super Saturday left more questions than answers on the dirt, thanks to a blatant track bias that not merely carried, but propelled, front runners on the inside. Anyone trying to improve position on the outside may as well have been in quicksand.
Looking ahead to World Cup night, it’s a daunting thought that we’ll have to handicap the dirt track too – as if handicapping the horses weren’t challenging enough. Chances are it will play rather differently, but in any event, we’ll have to call audibles if a pattern emerges during the card.
World Cup night pointers were also furnished in a few of the races on last Thursday’s program. With the Dubai Carnival action concluded, and now just awaiting the March 26 blockbuster, it’s time to gauge where we stand.
To sharpen the focus, let’s review the Thursday and Super Saturday preps through the lens of their corresponding races on World Cup night. We’ll begin with the World Cup, proceed to the other dirt contests in Volume II, and switch to turf in Volume III.
DUBAI WORLD CUP
Have you ever believed in a horse as an up-and-comer, only to have him flop spectacularly on the class hike? Chastened, you now question or even revise your opinion. Then that same horse comes roaring back at a high level to justify your original belief – but you didn’t back him.
That sums up my experience with Special Fighter in the Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1).
After his track-record romp in a January 21 handicap, I wrote in a “Dubai Carnival beads” edition: “Every Carnival, there’s a progressive type who runs himself into the Dubai World Cup (G1) picture, and this year’s model is Special Fighter.”
I expected him to run well in the Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2). Even if he faced an insurmountable class test against Frosted, Special Fighter ought to have at least challenged. Instead, he looked run off his feet in a poor sixth.
In the ensuing “Dubai Carnival beads,” I held out a sliver of hope that maybe Special Fighter could still put it together: “Special Fighter could still be one of those sneaky Carnival horses who can crash the bottom rungs of the World Cup exotics, but he’ll need to show more in Maktoum Round 3 (G1) on Super Saturday.”
Not exactly a profile in courage in my Super Saturday preview, I offered this too-cautious assessment: “The subplot is which of the local handicappers may punch above their weight. My gut instinct is that we didn’t see the real Special Fighter (15-1) when he flopped behind Frosted, and I won’t be surprised if he cracks the superfecta.”
Had we known that Special Fighter threw shoe(s) in Round 2 – a piece of intelligence apparently not publicized until after his 33-1 surprise in Round 3 – I might have been a little more positive about him as a longshot play. But no one could have foreseen his dramatic change of tactics, under an inspired Fernando Jara, to turn the track bias to his advantage. In the process, he crowned a remarkable three-win night for trainer Musabah al Muhairi.
Special Fighter scrambled to get to the front, and the race was over. To be fair, you needed a quality horse to pull it off. He hadn’t set the pace since his former life with trainer Mark Johnston in England, all the way back in 2014, so he demonstrated a nifty tactical versatility here. And as a track-and-trip specialist, the son of Teofilo can make his presence felt in the World Cup.
Nevertheless, can anyone take at face value an about 1 1/4-mile dirt race that serves up a :22.697 final quarter? Special Fighter’s track record of 2:03.09, lowering Prince Bishop’s 2:03.24 from last year’s World Cup, begs for a sprinkling of salt.
For the same reason, a few of his beaten rivals turned in fine efforts in defeat.
Hong Kong’s Gun Pit benefited from being drawn on the rail, but he was taken out of his preferred closing style to stalk Special Fighter. Keeping on determinedly down the stretch for a clear second, he exorcised the bad memories from Japan in December. Trainer Caspar Fownes knows that he needs a fair track, though, to go one better in the World Cup.
“We just have to pray that the surface changes a little bit for World Cup night because we would love to ride him a bit quieter, how he likes to be ridden, and still have a chance,” Fownes told the South China Morning Post.
While Special Fighter and Gun Pit both adapted themselves to the speed-favoring track, the one-dimensional Keen Ice simply could not cope, especially hung out wide from post 11. His chances were plummeting all day as deep closers struggled in the prior races, but all-world jockey Ryan Moore tried to mitigate the bias by getting him involved early. Driving him from the gate, Moore willed him into striking range to no avail. Keen Ice was caught flat-footed when the pace increased markedly turning for home, and he plugged on in seventh. Trakus reveals that he negotiated an extra 52 feet, some task on a track whose outside lanes were unforgiving.
Donegal Racing and trainer Dale Romans are reportedly sticking to the World Cup plan, and why wouldn’t they? What else would they do at this point, when the pace scenario in the World Cup promises to be much different, and the surface might be more tiring too? Sure, he’s a plodder who needs lots of help, and he got none on Super Saturday. Why walk away from a $10 million race when you’re already on the scene, with a realistic chance of things being more suitable? The World Cup might well turn into a war of attrition again, and if Prince Bishop can win one, Keen Ice has a shot too.
To turn to the more positive efforts, Faulkner held third by a neck from the closing Mubtaahij, and fans of both can take some consolation. Faulkner was parked in the outside stalking twilight zone, tacking on an extra 26 feet to his circuit, and dug in with his trademark grit. Mubtaahij spent much of his time tucked back on the quicker rail, but had to swing out to the unfavorable part of the track turning for home, while trying to make up ground on the leaders. Given how Meydan was playing, Mubtaahij’s performance is better than it looks on paper. While he’s yet to reach his 2015 form, Mike de Kock will have him peaking third off the layoff in the World Cup.
De Kock was his forthright self on his website, admitting his disappointment with the Round 3 result, but turning the page:
“We expected to fight out the finish with Mubtaahij today, to get into the first three at the very least, so this was disappointing. He was moving well in the race and then appeared to hit a flat spot after the bend, before staying on again late.
“I have to say though, that runners drawn off the rail today had little chance of winning. Whatever turned on the lead or handy got away to win, unchallenged. Arguably, the first two past the post in the Maktoum Round 3 didn’t have the exposed quality of form to be considered as dangers before the race, yet they beat us comfortably. There was a clear track bias which makes it really hard for me to make an accurate assessment of this result.
“Make no mistake, Mubtaahij didn’t perform as we expected him to perform, but there is still room for improvement. He will need to improve a lot before 26 March, but I still believe he will be in the first four in the Dubai World Cup, he is better than this. What happens on Super Saturday is not guaranteed to be repeated on World Cup night. We have a few weeks to go, we’ll knuckle down and do the work that has to be done.”
Finally, Watershed ran a sneaky race in his first attempt at the distance, enough to warrant joining stablemate Frosted in the World Cup. Last of a dozen early after a sluggish beginning, he closed for sixth. The Kiaran McLaughlin pupil needs to break better, and have a fair-playing surface. But like Keen Ice, he could get it on March 26. By Bernardini and out of a mare by 2000 World Cup legend Dubai Millennium, lightly raced Watershed has more to offer.
The biggest winners, you might say, were the Americans who passed on Round 3 – the aforementioned Frosted, California Chrome, Mshawish, and Hoppertunity, who have the luxury of not having to come right back in three weeks. At this writing, a couple of other internationals are likely in the form of English shipper Intilaaq from the Roger Varian yard and Japan’s Hokko Tarumae (reportedly still awaiting his official invitation).
The other dirt races follow in Vol. II…