Will the Donn regain its status as a Dubai World Cup pointer?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

February 8th, 2016

The Donn H. (G1) has historically been the key race for U.S. interests in the Dubai World Cup (G1). Of the nine U.S.-based winners, four exited the Donn, twice as many as those who prepped in the San Antonio (G2).

Cigar (1996) won the inaugural World Cup following his repeat victory in the Donn. Captain Steve (2001) and Invasor (2007) likewise turned the double, while Roses in May (2005) had been second to Saint Liam at Gulfstream before flattering him in Dubai. A trio of Donn winners also finished second in the World Cup – Harlan’s Holiday (2002), Medaglia d’Oro (2004) and Brass Hat (who was unfortunately disqualified in 2006).

Twice the Donn and San Antonio have produced the World Cup exacta. Cigar beat San Antonio runner-up Soul of the Matter, but in 2004, San Antonio hero Pleasantly Perfect bested Donn winner Medaglia d’Oro (a replica of their one-two result from the prior fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic [G1]). The San Antonio also yielded 2009 World Cup romper Well Armed. In 2008, Well Armed had placed third in the World Cup off a San Antonio score.

Neither the Donn nor San Antonio had any traction during Meydan’s Tapeta years (2010-14). Upon the installation of the new dirt course at Meydan, however, each served as a better World Cup pointer in 2015. Although Dubai denizen Prince Bishop won, the American placegetters were California Chrome (the San Antonio runner-up) and Lea (second as the defending champion in the Donn).

This year, the Donn will likely be double-handed in the World Cup with the victorious Mshawish and non-threatening sixth Keen Ice. So may the San Antonio, with photo-finish winner Hoppertunity and close third Donworth both in the discussion.

Without even appealing to the historical trends, the 2016 Donn appears the stronger of the two on form. Mshawish deserves credit for being a dual surface Grade 1 winner, and it makes sense to go for the prestige – and $10 million jackpot – in the World Cup. He’d have a better shot in a potentially chaotic dirt race than in a presumably formful Dubai Turf (G1), where beasts by the names of Solow and Maurice lie in wait. As gallant a third as Mshawish was in the 2015 Dubai Turf, after a last-minute injury setback, he was never going to beat Solow.

There’s also a fascinating World Cup subtext: Mshawish is owned by Al Shaqab Racing, the nom de course of Qatari royal Sheikh Joaan al Thani. A rival to the Dubai-based empire of the Maktoum family, the Qataris would be thrilled to snatch the World Cup. What better symbol of bragging rights among the Persian Gulf racing powers?

Keen Ice, unsurprisingly, found Gulfstream’s 1 1/8 miles inhospitable terrain. But 1 1/4 miles over a demanding Meydan track, and a contentious pace, could appeal to the one-dimensional closer. That scenario isn't implausible after the similarly profiled Prince Bishop's success a year ago. And the same could be said of Hoppertunity.

But there’s a glaring omission in a laser-like focus on the 2016 Donn or San Antonio: the big guns who weren’t there, preferring to get in preps in Dubai (the path pioneered by Curlin in 2008). I speak, of course, of Frosted and California Chrome. Their absence domestically opened up opportunities for others.

The point holds true especially for Chrome, since he had beaten both Hoppertunity and Imperative in his San Pasqual (G2) comeback, and their San Antonio shoot-out was a compliment.

The counterfactual about Frosted in the Donn, on the other hand, is far more speculative. Nevertheless, considering how well the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee performed in the Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2), it’s worth wondering just what he might have done in the Donn. That’s not to equate the two races from a class perspective, but simply to note that Frosted ran huge after shipping half a world away. Is it unreasonable to suggest that he would also have served up a big effort, admittedly versus tougher, in his backyard?

The divergent approaches to World Cup preps will be tested on March 26. If Frosted and Chrome outperform the Donn/San Antonio brigade, leading U.S. hopefuls may keep taking the Dubai prep route in the future. If they don’t, the Donn could experience a resurgence as a World Cup launching pad.

Mshawish photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese Photography.