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Homeracing

Dubai: Super Saturday & the Peloponnesian War

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

March 13th, 2015

Strained historical parallel alert: the results of the March 7 "Super Saturday" card at Meydan generally called to mind the outcome of the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). As my ancient history professor once pointed out, although Sparta defeated Athens in the end, the real winner was the Persian Empire.

So what does this have to do with Super Saturday's preps for Dubai World Cup night? Most of the prep winners -- with one or two exceptions -- look as unlikely to build upon their victories as Sparta. And the biggest beneficiaries could turn out to be the international raiders, "foreign powers" if you will, plotting their moves for March 28.

Defending Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) winner African Story improved markedly in his second attempt on the dirt to take the Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (UAE-G1), but the Godolphin veteran still doesn't look as fluent on this surface as he did on the old Tapeta. The same goes for classy stablemate Prince Bishop, who was literally under a ride for a mile. Despite just missing again, Prince Bishop made perhaps even harder work of it than he did in Round 2 (UAE-G2).

Watch and judge for yourself, while listening to track announcer Terry Spargo's apt assessments of African Story: "He's being desperately ridden coming around the turn," and at the wire, he "hated every inch of the dirt but class told the tale."

 

Although African Story deserves great credit for fighting his way through it, this field is a far cry from the level of competition he'll face in the World Cup. The Saeed bin Suroor charge got away with it against handicappers and a stamina-challenged Frankyfourfingers, and only just from Prince Bishop.

Admittedly, I've underestimated African Story before, but I can't see how he can get away with it again and make history as the first two-time World Cup winner. Also, only three winners of the Maktoum Challenge Round 3 have doubled up in the World Cup -- Dubai Millennium (2000), Street Cry (2002) and Electrocutionist (2006) -- and I'd shrink from putting African Story in their company.

Another Godolphin winner on Super Saturday, Sky Hunter, is likewise running head-long into a daunting historical trend: the Dubai City of Gold (UAE-G2) has yet to produce a single winner of the Dubai Sheema Classic (UAE-G1).

On the plus side, Sky Hunter drew away by 1 3/4 lengths in his seasonal reappearance in the City of Gold. Any concerns about his readiness for the about 1 1/2-mile test, coming off a four-month holiday, were put to bed.

Runner-up Sheikhzayedroad, who was returning from a similar vacation, warrants special mention for a better-than-appears effort: slowly away and last early, the David Simcock charge advanced while parked out wide on the sweeping turn, joined Sky Hunter, and made the winner kick into another gear. Umgiyo stayed on for third, proving that my expectations were too optimistic, but hopefully he can resume his progress back in the nine to 10-furlong range.

 

Sky Hunter is a completely different animal since he was gelded last summer, and he could make his mark in Europe this season. Yet right now, he figures to be up against it in an all-star renewal of the Sheema. Note also that he exited the City of Gold a bit worse for wear. According to the stewards' report, Sky Hunter was "showing signs of heat stress and poor recovery."

Godolphin's third Super Saturday winner, Hunter's Light, could prove the exception to the general pattern with a stellar performance in the Jebel Hatta (UAE-G1). He utterly routed the field by 6 1/2 lengths, in a strong 1:47.97 for about nine furlongs on the Meydan turf. A repeat of that effort would make him tough to beat in the Dubai Turf (formerly Duty Free) (UAE-G1). The question is whether the bin Suroor trainee can match that career best, three weeks later, versus a few capable new shooters.

Hunter's Light shredded my pre-race speculation that the 1 1/4-mile specialist might not be as sharp on the cutback in trip. I was also off base in thinking that runner-up Trade Storm would need this first start back to blow off the cobwebs, as usual. But last year's Woodbine Mile (Can-G1) winner and Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) third was a lot sharper than in his past Carnival comebacks, rattling home to get up in a photo for second. In hindsight, Trade Storm had been on the go much later in the 2014 season, and therefore wasn't so rusty after all.

But both might have benefited from the fact that Vercingetorix sustained a career-ending injury in the running. Very much the one to beat, Vercingetorix got uncharacteristically out of position, and you could tell that he was in trouble by his short, choppy action in the stretch. After crossing the wire a one-paced sixth, he was found to have injured a suspensory in his right front leg.

On his website, trainer Mike de Kock hailed the courage of Vercingetorix:

"Christophe (Soumillon) couldn't persevere with Vercingetorix, but he said the horse wanted to carry on -- he was trying to run to the end, which shows just how courageous he is. He had more rivals behind him than ahead of him at the post despite his discomfort.

"It's a big setback. Vercingetorix would have been a serious runner for us on World Cup night. We had him on top of his game for this race, he was extremely well. But we have to face reality. This is what I hate about racing."

 

Indeed, it was in some respects a tough night for the de Kock camp, with Darwin (last in the Jebel Hatta) and Mickdaam (sixth in the City of Gold) also coming up lame in the aftermath.

But there were a couple of bright spots for de Kock, chief among them Mubtaahij, who looked like a proper Kentucky Derby (G1) contender with a decisive victory in the Al Bastakiya. The Dubawi colt simply had too many gears for Sir Fever, the hitherto unbeaten Uruguayan Triple Crown winner. Mubtaahij thus looms as a prime threat to add the U.A.E. Derby (UAE-G2) over the same about 1 3/16-mile trip, and its boatload of Derby points.

Sir Fever stands to move forward off this Dubai debut for Godolphin, but he wasn't beaten so much for fitness here as for a turn of foot. Charlie Appleby's new recruit effortlessly tracked the pacesetter and took over while still on the bridle. Mubtaahij, in receipt of 10 pounds from the Southern Hemisphere-bred, covered that move into the stretch, and shot past in a couple of strides -- "went straight to him, went straight past him," in Spargo's phrase.

Lugging in as he forged ahead, Mubtaahij crossed over into the path of Sir Fever, who then had to steer around him. But Mubtaahij was much the best in a final time of 1:59.08, not far off the 1:58.24 mark set by the older Frankyfourfingers in the Maktoum Challenge Round 2.

 

As much as I'd like to crown Mubtaahij right now, he does have to defy a trend, and a few additional rivals, on World Cup night. Only one Al Bastakiya winner has gone on to win the U.A.E. Derby -- Asiatic Boy (2007), a fellow de Kock trainee, who remains the only one to sweep the U.A.E. Triple Crown. Among those waiting in the wings is Maftool, a narrow winner over Mubtaahij in the U.A.E. Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-G3), who skipped this middle leg of the series. And I haven't even mentioned Japan's Golden Barows yet.

De Kock's other good take-away from Super Saturday was the sneaky effort by multiple South African Group 1 star Via Africa in the Meydan Sprint (UAE-G3). The horseman took pains to emphasize in advance that Via Africa was in a tough spot in her comeback, having last raced in May, and even worse, following the draining travel protocols imposed on the South African exports. In the circumstances, she could have been forgiven for blowing up completely. But Via Africa kept on battling for a close ninth, beaten fewer than two lengths in a madhouse finish. That's likely to put her spot-on for the Al Quoz Sprint (UAE-G1), which will be her acid test on the international stage.

The Meydan Sprint appeared a fiercely competitive dash on paper, and so it played out. Sir Maximilian sprang a big upset after dropping his first four Carnival starts. The only horse racing in Dubai for the Worcestershire-based Ian Williams, Sir Maximilian had a potential seam close on him, and he had to alter course late. Despite the inconvenience, he got up to nip Ahtoug and Caspar Netscher. But it's difficult to envision him confirming the result on World Cup night, when he will no longer have a fitness edge, and the waters get even deeper with the Hong Kong shippers.

Ahtoug, sporting cheekpieces in this third start of the Carnival, had no excuse in second. He'll run his very good race again, but after similar near-misses in last year's Meydan Sprint and Al Quoz, he's starting to wear a bridesmaid tag. Caspar Netscher was yet another Simcock pupil to run his eyeballs out (foreshadowing Sheikhzayedroad and Trade Storm). Unraced since his eighth in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1), Caspar Netscher was prominent throughout and just failed. This marked his first try at about five furlongs since his juvenile days in 2011, and I still suspect he'd prefer six.

Aside from Via Africa, the other also-rans to mention are Sole Power and Extortionist. Sole Power lives by the gaps; when they don't materialize, he's done, and that's what happened here. Just when the multiple Group 1 hero began to gather steam from off the pace, he ran into a wall of horses. Jockey Richard Hughes could do nothing other than restrain him, and he crossed the wire like a coiled spring. His 12th is a total toss-out, and he remains among the very top tier of Al Quoz contenders. Extortionist still has something to prove among these old warriors, but the four-year-old never had the chance after losing his left front shoe early on. Jockey Andrea Atzeni felt the colt become unbalanced, according to the stewards' report, and he eased him out of the race.

Now, see how many times you have to watch the Meydan Sprint before you can follow all of the plot twists (I lost count myself):

 

The main-track sprint, the Mahab al Shimaal (UAE-G3), also overturned the formbook as Shaishee prevailed. Like Sir Maximilian, he too had lost four times at the Carnival, including a fifth in the Al Shindagha Sprint (UAE-G3). And his two pre-Carnival wins on the Meydan dirt had come over longer trips. But the Musabah al Muhairi pupil was at his very best here, despite covering extra ground throughout from post 9. Easing back a bit off the early pace battle, he pounced under a well-timed ride by Silvestre de Sousa. The newly blinkered United Color swooped from the rear, but a fraction too late.

The horse to take out of the race could be Cool Cowboy, who traveled conspicuously well and struck the front before weakening late. That was to be feared, considering that he was playing catch-up after an illness. Yet he fared best of the pace factors, and is entitled to take a leap forward second time out for Doug Watson.

The disappointment of the race was 2012 Golden Shaheen (UAE-G1) winner Krypton Factor, who benefited from an inside trip, but couldn't make his presence felt in fifth. French filly Farmah had a question to answer in her dirt debut, and flubbed it by fading to sixth.

 

Chances are that we didn't see the Golden Shaheen winner in this prep. The best of the locals at the moment, 2013 Golden Shaheen winner Reynaldothewizard, sat this one out, and the Hong Kong and American representatives should have a lot to say on World Cup night too.

Muhairi scored a double later with the streaking Tamarkuz, who completed a hat trick as widely forecast in the Burj Nahaar (UAE-G3). He would have had a big chance in the Godolphin Mile (UAE-G2), but connections are reportedly swinging for the fences in the World Cup. Even though I've been a Tamarkuz fan, he doesn't seem to be crying out for an extra quarter-mile.

 

In his absence, the Godolphin Mile has a wide-open feel. Surfer ranks as the top local hope, having taken the December 18 Dubai Creek Mile before the Carnival and the Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (UAE-G2) on opening night, and the American squad is taking shape.

Now that the local picture has crystallized, we'll take a look at the projected international contingent next week.

Picture of African Story taken from larger photo by Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club.

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