Several stars return on Thursday at Meydan

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Ted Black

February 3rd, 2016

Thursday's seven-race program at Meydan features a number of talented runners making their seasonal debuts and racegoers should study the events carefully to see which horses could be worth playing in subsequent weeks and eventually on the ultra-lucrative Dubai World Cup Day on March 28.

Thursday's opener is a $100,000 stakes for Arabian horses at one-mile and three-eighths that looks inscrutable, but the second race kicks off a strong sequence for thoroughbreds.

Thursday's  second race is the $175,000 EGA Billet Trophy, a handicap event for older runners sprinting five furlongs on the turf. Ertijaal, a five-year-old son of Oasis Dream owned by Shiekh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, returned from a 10-month layoff to capture a similar event four weeks ago by five lengths in 56.38 over the Meydan lawn. Starting from post 16 - head numbers are not the same as post positions in many of these races - Ertijaal looms the one to beat and he could be poised for much greater acclaim here next month in the Grade I Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup Day.

But keep close watch on Hototo, Naadir, Sir Maximilian, Caspian Prince, Green Door and Saayerr. Sir Maximilian, Hototo and Caspian Prince both won similar events over the course last winter before being outclassed in the Al Quoz, while Naadirr made two starts at Ascot last fall and was the beaten favorite in a Group III race there. Green Door has already made two starts over the oval and was beaten favorite in the Handicap won by Roicead, where Saayerr was a solid second.

One race later in the Group II, $294,000 Cape Verdi Stakes for fillies and mares at one mile on the main dirt track, the compact field of seven offers a genuine puzzle. Almashooqa was simply dismal in her local debut last out and looks more suited for turf. More Aspen won nicely going nine furlongs on the grass in her local debut last month, but it remains to be seen how well she'll do on dirt. Norwegian invader Icecapada won two straight stakes on the grass to end her prior campaign, but she did win a route race on the first in Norway last summer. Very Special appears to have plenty of ability, but she made only two starts at age two and only three starts last year and makes her four-year-old debut in this spot.

But Thursday's fourth race, the Group II Al Maktoum Challenge Stakes at one-mile and one-eighth on the main dirt track is certainly going to have U.S. racing fans watching closely.

Frosted, who spent much of his three-year-old campaign chasing American Pharoah, makes his four-year-old debut for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and Godolphin. Frosted concluded his sophomore season with a 2-3-1 slate and $2.4 million bankroll from nine starts, but his campaign was dramatically overshadowed by Triple Crown winner and eventual horse of the year, American Pharoah. This is likely his first of two preps for the $10 million Dubai World Cup later next month.

But looking to spoil Frosted's four-year-old debut are several other runners with plenty of form in the U.S. Prayer For Relief, who debuted here last month in a one-mile race on the grass, has numnerous Grade I experience back home and arrives with an 8-6-9 slate and $1.5 million bankroll from 39 career outings. Elnaawi, another McLaughlin trainee whose last win was a minor stakes at Laurel, has fared well on the dirt and was third in the Grade I Donn Handicap last spring at Gulfstream Park.

Then two races later in the sixth, the Group III, $294,000 Firebreak Stakes at one mile on the main dirt track, much of the attention will be on the four-year-old debut of Mubtaahij. Last year at Meydan, Mubtaahij won the Group II UAE Derby by eight lengths and then arrived in the United States for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes where he chased American Pharoah while owning the distinction of being the only horse in either race not running at Lasix. Mubtaahij will look to regain his winning ways over his home track on Thursday.

Looking to topple the local champ are several runners with ample experience on dirt tracks in the U.S. Confrontation, another McLaughlin trainee, finished second four times in five starts last year, losing to Liam's Map, Tonalist, Pants On Fire and Lea. Watershed won twice in four sprints last year and chased Runhappy in two Grade I stakes. Le Bernardin has already won two stakes at Meydan this winter and rates an upset chance if neither Mubtaahij or Confrontation run well.