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Homeracing

Top five storylines for 2022 Dubai World Cup Day

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

March 24th, 2022

While grappling with the fantastic Dubai World Cup card at Meydan on Saturday, here are five storylines to watch.

1. Baffert versus Life Is Good

A year ago, that header would have been inconceivable, since Life Is Good was the star of the Bob Baffert barn. Following the injury that knocked him off the Triple Crown trail, however, circumstances changed. Baffert was suspended in the wake of Medina Spirit’s testing positive in the Kentucky Derby (G1), barred first by Churchill Downs Inc. and then by NYRA.

Meanwhile, Life Is Good, who had convalesced back home at WinStar, was gearing up on the farm. Connections were eyeing a New York campaign, so they opted to transfer the colt to Todd Pletcher, ensuring he’d be able to compete in his chosen targets. Although Baffert eventually was allowed to enter in New York, after a judge granted an injunction, Life Is Good had made the switch.

Fast forward to Saturday, and Baffert is taking on the brilliant colt whom he had rated so highly, and who is now going from strength to strength for a rival trainer. Adding to the drama, Baffert’s hope of spoiling the party, Country Grammer, has overlapping ownership with Life Is Good – WinStar co-owns both. In a further irony, the Country Grammer partnership includes Amr Zedan, owner of ill-fated Medina Spirit. (And that is not even getting into his trainer change from Chad Brown after the estate sale of late owner Paul Pompa.)

The storyline is almost operatic. If not for those twists and turns, Pletcher’s pursuit of a first World Cup victory would be the focus, as he sends out the heavy favorite. If Life Is Good wins, the Pletcher storyline takes the spotlight. If Country Grammer denies him, and gives Baffert a fourth World Cup, there wouldn’t be enough room in the winner’s circle for all the subtexts.

2. Japanese momentum from Breeders’ Cup and Saudi

Japan has been a quality presence on the international stage for some time, but the past few months have witnessed an even higher level of results. Historic wins in the Breeders’ Cup – a totally logical Filly & Mare Turf (G1) followed by a more inscrutable upset in the Distaff (G1) – were followed by four Japanese victories on Saudi Cup Day. Japan swept all three turf races, added the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3), and came within a half-length of making it five in the Saudi Derby (G3).

So how many races will Japan win on World Cup night? As usual, the center of gravity is on the turf, although they have dirt chances too.

Japan has an absolute juggernaut lined up for the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1), with a total of five. Authority, Shahryar, and Glory Vase bring obvious credentials, but Stella Veloce is usually thereabouts, and the filly Uberleben could have more to offer. Dubai Turf (G1) favorite Schnell Meister is accompanied by projected pacesetter Panthalassa and last year’s runner-up Vin De Garde.

The Dubai Gold Cup (G2) includes Stay Foolish, fresh off his Red Sea Turf H. (G3) coup in Saudi, and the unexposed Veloce Oro. Their weakest turf chance is in the Al Quoz Sprint (G1), for Lauda Sion and Entscheiden must improve to factor.

In the World Cup, Japan relies on Chuwa Wizard, the 2021 runner-up who has to perform at least as well to make the frame in this tougher renewal. Compatriot Red le Zele, second in last year’s Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), likewise has to find a way to step up to the top podium, and distaffer Chain of Love’s distant third in Riyadh won’t be enough here. Soliste Thunder’s prospects in the Godolphin Mile (G2) were hit by post 13, and Bathrat Leon and Full Flat are in deep.

The best chance of a Japanese dirt win is probably the UAE Derby (G2), with Saudi near-misser Sekifu and Godolphin’s Combustion. Crown Pride has a dark-horse vibe, but Reiwa Homare would be a bigger surprise in his black-type debut off the layoff.

3. Godolphin’s big night

It stands to reason that Sheikh Mohammed’s operation wants to have the best possible results during Dubai’s flagship racing event. The royal blue silks have experienced a renaissance in recent years, with four World Cup night winners apiece in 2018 and 2019. After the COVID-forced cancellation in 2020, Godolphin picked up two more trophies in 2021, the World Cup and UAE Derby.

Trainer Charlie Appleby has the leading players on Saturday. Manobo is a prohibitive favorite to preserve his unbeaten record in the Dubai Gold Cup. Man of Promise is also favored to maintain his razor-sharp form in the Al Quoz, while stablemates Creative Force and Naval Crown have strong claims as well. Yibir will be well backed in the Sheema, although he has to overcome Team Japan.

Saeed bin Suroor is taking more stabs with his runners, but the elder Godolphin statesman can never be discounted. The nine-time World Cup winner tries high-class turfiste Real World on dirt again, despite his Saudi Cup flop, and he similarly perseveres with Island Falcon in the UAE Derby.

Bin Suroor has two in the Godolphin Mile, notably a turf-to-dirt wildcard in Storm Damage; Mutafawwig on the cutback in the Al Quoz; Passion and Glory and Volcanic Sky hoping to revive in the Gold Cup; Al Rashidiya (G2) winner Desert Fire in the Dubai Turf as well as Dubai Future in the Sheema, both reverting to the conditions of course-and-distance Carnival scores.

4. American sprinters on both surfaces

While American success in the Golden Shaheen is axiomatic, only last year was there finally a breakthrough in the corresponding Al Quoz on turf. U.S. shippers have a shot at turning the sprint double again.

The dirt prize figures to go stateside, as the trio of Dr. Schivel, Drain the Clock, and Wondrwherecraigis are all capable. The turf, as ever, is a trickier challenge, especially since this year’s Al Quoz is substantially deeper. Yet Casa Creed put up a nifty bit of international form when missing narrowly in Saudi last out. Get Smokin’s profile suggests he could be effective shortening up, although this is an audacious spot to try it.

5. UAE Derby’s bearing on the Kentucky Derby

So far the UAE Derby form has failed to make any impact on the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps the story could have been different but for the Kentucky weather on the first Saturday in May. If Thunder Snow didn’t buck from feeling residual moisture hitting him in the belly in 2017, and if Mendelssohn weren’t clobbered in the sea of slop in 2018, either would have been good enough to hit the board at least.

As a general rule, however, contenders emerging from the UAE Derby haven’t been up to the standard demanded by the Kentucky Derby. The field for Saturday does not look like changing that equation, at the moment. 

Pinehurst has the requisite American class as a Grade 1 winner, but he has a stamina question to answer. Gilded Age should have the stamina, but needs to continue on the upswing. The Japanese shippers, barring a dazzling career high here, haven’t captured the imagination when it comes to their potential U.S. classic hopes. Neither have the Dubai Carnival sophomores taken the eye. Bendoog strikes me as the best long-term prospect of the locals, but even an improved effort would likely lead to mapping out plans for the next Dubai racing season. 

Postscript

Many other storylines are in play on the World Cup program, including whether Lord North (Dubai Turf) and Secret Ambition (Godolphin Mile) can defend their respective titles. But we’ll keep it to five and get back to the handicapping.

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