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Little Mike takes on the world in Duty Free

Little Mike figures to flash his early speed for new rider Gary Stevens (Benoit Photos)
Breeders' Cup Turf star Little Mike looms a serious threat in the Group 1, $5 million Dubai Duty Free at Meydan on Saturday. The about nine-furlong test on turf has attracted a deep and talented field from across the globe, including New Zealand standout Ocean Park; France's Giofra and French Fifteen; the streaking Sajjhaa; the Mike de Kock trio of The Apache, Igugu and Mushreq; and David Simcock's Trade Storm and I'm a Dreamer.

Little Mike was unfortunate to come along in the same year as Wise Dan, or he might well have reigned as the 2012 champion turf horse and Horse of the Year. The scrappy gelding swept three major titles -- the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at 1 1/8 miles, Grade 1 Arlington Million at 1 1/4 miles and Breeders' Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles, the latter in a a stakes-record 2:22.83. Trainer Dale Romans gave him an opportunity to book a World Cup ticket in the Group 1 Maktoum Challenge Round 3, but Little Mike didn't put his best foot forward on the Tapeta and checked in eighth. His tactical speed makes him dangerous, especially back on his preferred surface, and he picks up Gary Stevens.

Ocean Park recorded a Group 1 hat trick in Australia, landing the Underwood and Caulfield before capturing the nation's premier weight-for-age event, the Cox Plate, last October. The Gary Hennessy trainee already has two prep runs under his belt this season, and proved that he was back on song with a powerful win in the Group 1 New Zealand Stakes, his fifth success at the top level. Ocean Park is venturing to the Northern Hemisphere to boost his stallion value, and a trip to Royal Ascot beckons following Dubai.

Giofra, winner of the Group 1 Falmouth versus distaffers in July, exits a hard-charging second against males in the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup December 9. Her compatriot French Fifteen, who nearly upset Camelot in last spring's Group 1 Two Thousand Guineas, returned to action with a fine second in a Chantilly conditions race on March 2.

Godolphin's Sajjhaa has been on a roll throughout the Carnival, and the six-year-old mare is on the verge of a grand slam in the Duty Free. She is three-for-three since Saeed bin Suroor fitted her with a hood, comprising the Group 2 Cape Verdi, the Group 2 Balanchine in course-record time at this distance, and the Group 1 Jebel Hatta versus males. Sajjhaa will try to emulate the great mare Ipi Tombe, the only Jebel Hatta winner to follow up in the Duty Free.

Sajjhaa, The Apache (left) and Igugu (behind on right) will renew rivalry (Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club)
The Apache has run two bang-up races so far for de Kock. After capturing the Group 2 Al Rashidiya off a year-long layoff, the former South African champion was just run down late by Sajjhaa in the Jebel Hatta. The same cannot be said for his stablemate Igugu, who has run well below the form that saw her crowned South Africa's Horse of the Year. Igugu set too hot a pace when tiring to third in the Balanchine, but had no such excuse when a lifeless sixth in the Jebel Hatta, and is running out of time to regain her old sparkle. Not to be overlooked is de Kock's third hopeful, the progressive Mushreq, who burst to a 3 1/4-length tally in the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort.

Another rapid improver at the Carnival is Trade Storm, a visually-stunning last to first winner in his past two, including the Group 2 Zabeel Mile. Simcock will also be represented by I'm a Dreamer, the reigning Grade 1 Beverly D. heroine, who has not raced since her sixth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Godolphin's City Style, third in the 2012 Duty Free, has placed in both the Al Rashidiya and Jebel Hatta this term. Fellow Mahmood al Zarooni pupil Fulbright was third in the Zabeel Mile, while bin Suroor has Aesop's Fables, last season's Group 1 Prix Jean Prat victor, who reverts to turf after flopping on Tapeta.

Wigmore Hall will be competing in his third consecutive Duty Free. Third in 2011 and fourth in 2012, the Michael Bell trainee appears better suited to longer trips at this stage of his career, as implied by his back-to-back wins in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf over 1 1/2 miles at Woodbine. Wigmore Hall had prepped in the Jebel Hatta for the past two years, but this time, he makes his seasonal reappearance in this spot.

The Group 1, $1 million Al Quoz Sprint, an about five-furlong dash down the straight, likewise features a global cast.

Shea Shea tops a full field in the Al Quoz Sprint (Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club)
South African supremo Shea Shea rates as the one to beat off his course record-setting romp in the March 9 Meydan Sprint, in his second start off the bench for de Kock. Placegetters Sole Power and Russian Soul, as well as also-rans Russian Rock, Spirit Quartz, Medicean Man, Monsieur Joe and Invincible Ash, have a mountain to climb to reverse form.

American hopes rest in Varsity and Great Attack, the respective first and third from the February 2 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint. The Christophe Clement-trained Varsity will tackle top-level company for the first time, while Great Attack has placed fourth and fifth in the past two Breeders' Cup Turf Sprints for Wesley Ward.

The Aidan O'Brien-trained Starspangledbanner was a better-than-appears 10th in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, free-wheeling on the front end before giving way rapidly in the closing stages. The former Australian and European champion hasn't been the same since returning from a failed stud career, but he could have another mighty race left in him.

Hong Kong has a dynamic duo in Eagle Regiment, two-time winner of the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup, and the nine-year-old Joy and Fun, who won this race back in 2010 and was a strong third last year. Singapore will be represented by Mr Big, runner-up in last May's Group 1 KrisFlyer International Sprint.

Carnival regulars Dux Scholar and Ganas also deserve their chance on the big night. Dux Scholar beat Russian Soul and Medicean Man under top weight in a course-and-distance handicap, and Ganas has been showing plenty of dash, only to tire on the Tapeta.

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