Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum’s Heavy Metal upstaged Godolphin hotpot Thunder Snow in Thursday’s $250,000 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2), the Thoroughbred feature on opening night of the 2018 Dubai World Cup Carnival.
Trained by Salem bin Ghadayer and ridden by Mickael Barzalona, the eight-year-old veteran made the most of his race fitness, inside draw, and early speed to lead throughout. Thunder Snow, usually prominent, was instead reserved off the pace, and Heavy Metal was long gone by the time the favorite began to hit his stride. Another projected pace rival, North America, blew the break in his comeback and wound up a distant third.
Heavy Metal opened up by 4 1/2 lengths from Thunder Snow while completing the metric mile in 1:37.80. The Exceed and Excel gelding was winning his second straight stakes, after the December 21 Dubai Creek Mile, and he’d been similarly dominant over course and distance in the Burj Nahaar (G3) back on Super Saturday in March.
“These conditions really suit him and he has done nothing but improve, especially over the last year,” Barzalona said. “He relishes this dirt surface and is showing on the track what he has displayed to us in his work at home in the mornings. He has always worked like a very good horse and has such a great, willing, attitude. He is easy to ride. We had a good draw and he broke well, so I was always going to go to the front and he enjoys those positive tactics.”
Thunder Snow wasn’t fully cranked for this seasonal reappearance, jockey Christophe Soumillon commented.
“He jumped out quite OK,” Soumillon said of the 2017 UAE Derby (G2) and UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) hero over this track. “I was quite happy with my position. For the distance today, with that pace, it was probably a bit short for him, but he finished the race quite well. It’s encouraging for the future. He gave me a good effort in the straight and he’s a horse who needs to be 100 percent fit and wasn’t today. The big target is in the future in a few more weeks and we’re going to see much better next time.”
Heavy Metal is now likely on a path toward another crack at the Godolphin Mile (G2), in which he was eighth on World Cup night last year. Amazingly, he scored this second career Group 2 almost six years after his first, the 2012 Richmond (G2) as a juvenile for Mark Johnston.
Bin Ghadayer and Barzalona swept both of the Thoroughbred dirt races. Earlier, they’d teamed up with the same owner’s Frankyfourfingers, who wired a handicap by 9 1/4 lengths. Like Heavy Metal, the eight-year-old is in resurgent mood following a return victory at Jebel Ali December 29.
The winner of the 2015 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) at this same about 1 3/16-mile trip, Frankyfourfingers was given the option of competing against Heavy Metal later on the card. But connections obviously chose the right race, and the gelded son of Sunday Break turned it into a procession in a final time of 1:57.82.
“These conditions really suit him and he has done that very well,” Barzalona said. “He beat (subsequent Dubai World Cup winner) Prince Bishop when winning the second leg of the Maktoum Challenge, so his class is apparent. We were very disappointed when he was injured last year and missed most of the season, but he is back to something like his best now and these two wins will have done wonders for his confidence.
“It has been a very good evening for the whole team and long may it continue throughout the year.”
Godolphin turned a double on the turf, both by Darley patriarch Dubawi, beginning with the Saeed bin Suroor-trained Benbatl in the $175,000 Singspiel (G3). Jockey Oisin Murphy did well to coax the favorite into a stalking spot, with cover, as he was on the verge of overracing early. Perfectly placed from that point on, the son of Dubawi and multiple Grade/Group 1 scorer Nahrain kicked on strongly for a 2 1/4-length decision.
“Saeed gave me an open book as how to ride him and they are a very straightforward team to ride for,” Murphy said. “I just looked for a bit of cover and then when I asked him, he picked up very well. He was a bit keen early on but he tends to be and, if you look after the line, he was still running away. He is a very nice horse, progressive and is going to get better. I am very grateful for these opportunities on such nice horses on big nights, especially with His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed here.”
Emotionless rounded out the Godolphin exacta, and trainer Charlie Appleby was pleased with the first-time gelding.
“I’m delighted,” Appleby said. “(Emotionless) was crying out for a trip there. He was fresh and well at home and that’s why we decided to let him have a run tonight. He’ll come on a nice bit from this run. We’ll probably head toward the Dubai Millennium Stakes ([G3] at about 1 1/4 miles February 22).”
Appleby’s other runner, Bay of Poets, “ran on well” in sixth, and “we’ll have options with him. Benbatl is a good horse.”
Benbatl negotiated about nine furlongs on the good course in a swift 1:46.99, fueling hopes that he’ll build on his solid three-year-old campaign. Last year, his highlights included a victory in the Hampton Court (G3) at Royal Ascot, placings in the Dante (G2) and Craven (G3), and fifths in the Derby (G1) at Epsom and King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1). Bin Suroor mentioned the Dubai Turf (G1), over the Singspiel distance, as a potential World Cup night goal.
Appleby sent out the exacta in a deep turf handicap at about seven furlongs, where D’bai found a sliver of a seam for William Buick, and knifed through to break the course record. Accelerating sharply to outfoot stablemate Bravo Zolo, the full brother to Group 2 winner Dubawi Gold suggested he could be up to that level now. D’bai eclipsed the old mark of 1:22.77 set by a past Appleby Carnival star, Safety Check, when clocking 1:22.32.
“We thought they both had a good chance but you need a bit of luck in these big field handicaps,” Appleby said. “D’bai has all the ability in the world but just needs everything to fall right for him and William has given him a peach of a ride. The horse has such tremendous acceleration, as you saw there. But again, credit William, who has found the gaps and produced him with a perfect challenge.”
Mike de Kock’s Noah from Goa was an admirable third in his comeback from injury, under top weight of 132 pounds. Irish shipper Rehana loomed dangerously before flattening out in fourth in her Dubai bow.
Godolphin nearly had a triple, but for the gallantry of France’s Golden Wood in the nightcap. Victorious in the same about 1 1/2-mile handicap at last year’s Carnival kickoff, the Nicolas Caullery charge appeared to have a more difficult assignment in his repeat bid. Golden Wood responded to the challenge, dug deep under a Soumillon drive, and came again to deny bin Suroor’s Gold Star in a pulsating finish in 2:27.87.
Yet another eight-year-old in the ascendant, Golden Wood was conceding eight pounds to the lightly-raced four-year-old Gold Star. A length back in third was another bin Suroor competitor, Best Solution, lugging 132 pounds.
That same top impost couldn’t derail the express train called Ertijaal, who captured the about five-furlong turf sprint on opening night for the third consecutive year. Spotting the smart Irish invader Hit the Bid 12 pounds, Sheikh Hamdan’s homebred showed his trademark speed but had to work to see him off. Ertijaal kept answering jockey Jim Crowley’s questions and edged a half-length away on the line.
“My horse was giving away a lot of weight on his first run of the season and the runner-up is a very useful sprinter,” Crowley said of the Ali Rashid al Rayhi trainee. “The front two have pulled well clear (3 1/2 lengths to the good of Dutch Masterpiece), so we have to be very pleased with that. He was a bit fresh, as you would expect, but now at seven he is hopefully at his prime as a sprinter and we will work towards World Cup night and the Al Quoz Sprint (G1).”
Ertijaal has been a nearly unstoppable force of nature at this track and trip. Only the vaunted Australian Buffering got the better of him in these conditions in the 2016 Al Quoz. Ertijaal owns the course record of :55.90 from last year’s Meydan Sprint (G3), and he ran almost as fast here – :56.02 – off the layoff. The son of Oasis Dream hadn’t raced since his third in last March’s Al Quoz, where he was asked to stretch his speed in rain-softened ground over the race’s newly extended distance of about six furlongs.