August 19, 2019

West Coast rates as early favorite in 10-horse field for Dubai World Cup

Travers-winning champion West Coast is favored to give Bob Baffert a fourth Dubai World Cup victory (Photo courtesy NYRA/Coglianese/Chris Rahayel)

Bob Baffert’s West Coast, last year’s champion three-year-old male, tops a field of 10 set for Saturday’s $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1) at Meydan.

The World Cup has a pronounced Breeders’ Cup flavor. Four of the contenders competed in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) over a similar 1 1/4-mile trip – third-placer West Coast; Gunnevera, who dead-heated with Arrogate for fifth; and the respective eighth and 10th, Mubtaahij and Pavel. And two reigning Breeders’ Cup winners are venturing outside of their own divisions – Distaff (G1) champion Forever Unbridled tries males for the first time in her career finale, and Turf (G1) star Talismanic tries his luck on the dirt.

Thus major storylines revolve around which Breeders’ Cup angle is the key one: will the Classic retain its historic influence upon the World Cups held on dirt? Will history be made by Forever Unbridled as the first female World Cup winner? Or by Talismanic, the first to attempt the Classic as the Breeders’ Cup Turf titleholder?

West Coast, the hot favorite in the antepost market, brings a formidable profile. A later-developing type who took control of a muddled three-year-old division, the son of Flatter and champion Caressing compiled a five-race winning streak capped by the Travers (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1). After a third to Horse of the Year Gun Runner in the Classic, West Coast took another step forward when a closer second to his now-retired rival in the Pegasus World Cup (G1). That effort stamped West Coast as Gun Runner’s heir apparent in the older male division, a position he can consolidate in Dubai. Javier Castellano has the return call on the horse well capable of giving Baffert a fourth World Cup.

Although West Coast is the obvious flagbearer of the Classic form, stablemate Mubtaahij has a stealthy look given his proficiency over this track and in this very race. Formerly with Mike de Kock, the son of Dubawi aired in the 2015 UAE Derby (G2), finished second to California Chrome in the 2016 World Cup, and checked in fourth to Arrogate last year. The well-traveled Mubtaahij has held his own at the top level on the American dirt too. During his stint with Kiaran McLaughlin in 2016, he just missed in the Woodward (G1), and for Baffert, he won last fall’s Awesome Again (G1) and comes off a second in the Santa Anita H. (G1). Now Mubtaahij picks up Hall of Fame rider Victor Espinoza, and it would be no surprise if he garners a share.

Multiple Grade 2 winner Gunnevera is an admirable money-spinner for Antonio Sano. Yet to find a way to outfinish West Coast, he was also second in the Travers and third in the Pegasus. His deep-closing style is a concern if the Meydan track continues to play to speed, but he promises to turn in his typically commendable effort.

Pavel was in the mix for the Big ‘Cap until connections decided to go for the World Cup. Owner Reddam Racing and trainer Doug O’Neill have never been afraid to pitch him into the deep end before – witness his failed Jim Dandy (G2) experiment straight off his sprint debut – but his raw talent has made it tempting to be ambitious. Pavel rebounded to thrash his foes in the Smarty Jones (G3), and ran a mighty third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) before losing his way at season’s end. The Creative Cause colt could be cycling back to his best, judging by a nightmarish-trip fourth in the San Pasqual (G2) in his latest. Regular rider Mario Gutierrez will be back aboard the wild card who needs to step up, but has upside.

Forever Unbridled figures to have a better time than the only other Breeders’ Cup Distaff heroine to try the World Cup, Royal Delta, who was unhappy here in 2012-3 during Meydan’s synthetic era. Had Royal Delta’s career coincided with a World Cup on dirt, we may have already seen a female winner. While untested against males, Forever Unbridled boasts superb form through two surefire Hall of Famers. The Dallas Stewart trainee was a closing third to Beholder and Songbird in their 2016 Distaff showdown, and she famously turned the tables on Songbird in last summer’s Personal Ensign (G1). Since Forever Unbridled looks stronger the farther she goes over 1 1/8 miles, she’s entitled to relish her chance at this distance with her new rider, Hall of Famer Mike Smith. The Charles Fipke homebred has a date with Medaglia d’Oro, the 2004 World Cup runner-up, when she returns home.

Medaglia d’Oro is the sire of Godolphin’s dirt debuter, Talismanic, whose pedigree and tactical speed make him just the kind of turf performer likely to handle the surface switch. Based in France with Andre Fabre, the flashy pin-up boy was a solid fourth to Almanzor in the 2016 Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1), and an improver throughout 2017. Talismanic turned the corner with his decisive victory in the about 1 3/4-mile Prix Maurice de Nieuil (G2) on Bastille Day. He reached a new level when reverting to about 1 1/2 miles, ending the year with his Breeders’ Cup upset and a second to Highland Reel in the Hong Kong Vase (G1). Talismanic warmed up for the World Cup with a stylish score in a Chantilly conditions race at about 1 3/16 miles, beating stablemate Cloth of Stars (who was prepping for the Dubai Sheema Classic [G1]). The World Cup distance is as short as he’d want to go at this level, but if it turns into a pillar-to-post slugfest, he won’t be outstayed. World Cup-winning jockey Mickael Barzalona, who delivered a perfect ride at Del Mar, is back in the saddle.

Godolphin’s established dirt performer, 2017 UAE Derby hero Thunder Snow, is among the entrants coming through the series of preps during the Dubai Carnival. Like Mubtaahij, however, he faces the historical hurdle that no UAE Derby winner has turned the double in the World Cup.

Hailing from the yard of seven-time World Cup winner Saeed bin Suroor, the homebred has traded decisions with Satish Seemar’s North America. Both were beaten in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) over a metric mile, where Thunder Snow was a non-threatening second and North America a toss-out third after a slow start. Both were more like themselves in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2), with Thunder Snow finally edging the pacesetter North America. But in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1), a fully fit North America demolished Thunder Snow in a track-record 2:01.71 over the World Cup distance. North America was aided by the pronounced track bias favoring inside speed, and it’s questionable if he can duplicate the feat here. Still, Seemar has held North America in very high regard since he first burst onto the Dubai scene last year, and sire Dubawi is already responsible for two World Cup winners (Monterosso in 2012 and Prince Bishop in 2015).

Rounding out the Carnival performers is the mare Furia Cruzada, the former Chilean champion who has competed ably versus males on this circuit. The winner of last year’s Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (over subsequent Godolphin Mile [G2] upsetter Second Summer), Furia Cruzada has finished third in the past two editions of Round 3. That performance didn’t help her in the 2017 World Cup, where she was involved in the bumoing match with Arrogate at the start, and she was a tailed-off 13 of 14. But trainer Erwan Charpy avers that her build-up this campaign has gone much better than a year ago, so Furia Cruzada may do herself justice on Saturday.

The other World Cup alum to return is Japan’s Awardee, a creditable fifth behind Arrogate in 2017. Lani’s half-brother was arguably in better form back then, when his six-race winning spree was snapped with a near-miss in the Champions Cup (G1), and he exited a second in the Tokyo Daishoten (G1). Fast forward 12 months, and Awardee’s best results in the interim are a pair of thirds. His recent ninth in the February S. (G1) is excusable, given the metric mile is too sharp for him and he didn’t have the clearest of stretch runs. Still, it’s difficult to make a case for him to improve on last year’s World Cup effort.

Here’s the complete field after Wednesday’s draw: