March 21, 2019

North America wires Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2; Estihdaaf boosts UAE Derby credentials in Guineas

North America and jockey Richard Mullen romp to victory in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) on February 7, 2019 (c) Dubai Racing Club/Erika Rasmussen

The Satish Seemar-trained North America was the headline act on Thursday’s Dubai Carnival program with another front-running tour de force in a World Cup prep. But Godolphin furnished the other storyline by racking up four wins on the night, including Estihdaaf’s breakthrough in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3).

North America was following up on his stunning comeback in the January 10 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2). In that first start since missing the break and flopping in last year’s Dubai World Cup (G1), the Dubawi gelding romped by nine lengths in fast time for the metric mile.

While it would be understandable if he regressed second up, North America again took no prisoners on the stretch-out in Round 2. Stable jockey Richard Mullen hustled him out of the gate to beat fellow Ramzan Kadyrov colorbearer Cosmo Charlie to the lead, then rationed out his speed. North America spurted away on the far turn, and only New Trails made headway down the stretch, reducing the margin to 2 1/4 lengths. His final time of 1:58.65 was the best at the about 1 3/16-mile trip so far this season, track announcer Craig Evans noted.

The improving New Trails left Cosmo Charlie another 4 3/4 lengths back in third. Ken McPeek’s Senior Investment got up for fourth, and Estijaah and Second Summer rounded out the order under the wire. Godolphin’s lone entrant, Leshlaa, was scratched.

“He is a bit like his jockey, improving with age,” Mullen quipped. “A lot was made out of his first run and it is hard for a horse to replicate what he did. Yes, he was visibly impressive and I always had it in the back of my mind that I thought he would win this race, but I didn’t think he would do it in the manner in which he did. It is very hard for a horse to back that up. A lot of it was freshness and a lot of it was obviously adrenaline.

“He is a top-class horse and he likes the surroundings. He has a beautiful stride and I think that is what kills a lot of the other horses off. His stride pattern is so different to the others; just half-pacing around there. That was phase one and phase two complete and now two more to go or maybe just one. We will sit down with the boss and speak to the owner and see if we skip Round 3 or freshen him up and go to the big night. He is going in the right direction.”

Seemar was on the same page about possibly foregoing a title defense in the March 9 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1).

“The thing is, he did it his style and that’s what is important for this horse, the way he just jumped out and went on his way,” the trainer said. “Richie didn’t even touch him and he was doing it on his own. Richie, even though he knew horses were coming, he and the horse knew they could take another stride and (hold them off). It was exactly what we wanted. We have time now and we may or may not go for the (Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3) on Super Saturday.”

North America competed in all three rounds last year, improving from a third in Round 1 to a close second to Thunder Snow in Round 2, and stepping up with a career high in Round 3. The seven-year-old is already further along this term, perhaps making the option of training straight up to the March 30 Dubai World Cup more attractive to connections.

Estihdaaf wins the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) at Meydan on February 7, 2019, under jockey Christophe Soumillon (c) Dubai Racing Club/Erika Rasmussen

If the World Cup picture is clear as far as the local hopes go, the UAE Derby (G2) picture has continued to shift over the Carnival, and the 2000 Guineas proved another shake of the kaleidoscope. Walking Thunder was all the rage after his smashing victory in the Guineas Trial, only to get overturned by a wide trip and a newly visored Estihdaaf.

A Godolphin homebred, Estihdaaf was coming off a rallying second in the January 24 Al Bastakiya Trial in his dirt debut. Instead of waiting for that Super Saturday contest, trainer Saeed bin Suroor opted to pitch him right into the Guineas. The Kentucky-bred was thus cutting back in distance to a metric mile, and the headgear helped get him into the game early.

Estihdaaf was slowly into stride from the rail, but responded to jockey Christophe Soumillon’s urgings to join the pace battle with Fintas and Sporting Chance. Meanwhile, Walking Thunder was parked out wide in a stalking spot, Trakus recording him covering 12 meters (about 39 feet) more than the winner. When Estihdaaf shrugged off his pace rivals, Walking Thunder loomed up turning for home, but failed to deliver a blow. Estihdaaf kept up his relentless gallop all the way to the line, widening his margin to 5 1/2 lengths while clocking 1:39.87.

Danish raider Red Cactus, a remote sixth behind Walking Thunder last time, improved in his second try around Meydan to close from far back for third. Sporting Chance ran like one not quite staying the trip in fourth. Fintas faded to fifth, followed by smart debut winner Moshaher, who was bothered by kickback after a slow start according to jockey Pat Dobbs; Eyelool; and the tailed-off Mulfit.

“When I hit the front, I was quite confident,” Soumillon said. “I know when you have a horse like him, who is a bit lazy, if you can hit the front and relax for a while, it’s hard to catch up. I was very confident, especially when I saw the favorite (Walking Thunder) turning four (wide). I knew I had a winning chance.

“When Saeed gets some ideas, he can make things work. He showed more speed today. I told Saeed last time that if I had hit the front, I would have won it, and finally we did it today. It was a better race, and we are all very happy with it.”

“If he was more forward, I knew he would improve from last time,” bin Suroor said of his seventh UAE 2000 Guineas winner, and Godolphin’s 11th.

“I was confident he could run the mile and I knew the dirt would suit him because of his breeding. I told Christophe to be handy with him like he was in the morning and it went well. Last time he came from too far back, but this time I told him to put him (in position). We will see how he comes out after the race and Sheikh Mohammed will make a decision about (the Al Bastakiya and UAE Derby).”

By Arch and out of the Ghostzapper mare Enrichment – a full sister to multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Better Lucky – Estihdaaf began his career on the British turf. He placed in his first two attempts before scoring at Leicester, but wound up eighth on the Meydan turf January 10 and accordingly tried his hand at the dirt.

Also running himself into the UAE Derby picture was the Quality Road colt Tabarak, who graduated in his dirt debut in the opener. The about seven-furlong maiden was a non-Carnival race, but the well-regarded colt has upside.

Trained by Rashed Bouresly for his racing syndicate, Tabarak was wheeling back from last Thursday’s unveiling in the Meydan Classic Trial on turf. The Kentucky-bred finished an educational eighth there and moved forward on the surface switch. With new rider Royston Ffrench, Tabarak flashed speed from his inside draw, repelled the stiff challenge from Midnight Sands, and pulled two lengths clear in 1:25.28.

“This is a very nice horse indeed,” Bouresly said, “and we were very pleased with his first run last week and this race was ideal for him because he is a dirt horse on pedigree. Now he has won this he should be eligible for the Al Bastakiya on Super Saturday and then, hopefully, the UAE Derby, which we think is a race he deserves to be aimed at.”

Out of the Afleet Alex mare Miss Drake, an unraced full sister to Grade 1 winner Dublin, Tabarak was bred by Peter E. Blum Thoroughbreds. He first sold for $185,000 as a Keeneland September yearling, but dipped to $75,000 at OBS last June.

Aside from Estihdaaf, Godolphin’s other three winners all came on turf for the trainer/jockey tandem of Charlie Appleby and William Buick.

Lightly raced four-year-old Dubhe emerged as a Dubai Gold Cup (G2) prospect, and possibly one for Australia, with a good-looking handicap score over the about two-mile trip. The son of Dubawi and Great Heavens, the classic-winning full sister to Nathaniel, stalked the pace and surged to a four-length decision. Bin Suroor’s Red Galileo, the 132-pound highweight who was conceding Dubhe 12 pounds, soldiered on by far best of the rest.

“We have always thought these staying races would be his forte,” Appleby said of Dubhe, “and he probably needed that first run (sixth behind Spotify January 24) more than we expected because he is not the easiest to get fit. He has done that well this evening and we have a few options with him now going forward in the Carnival. Whether he is a Dubai Gold Cup horse only time will tell, but he is a progressive young stayer.”

Nordic Lights, of a similar profile as an unexposed four-year-old, prospered on shortening up to about 1 1/8 miles. Run down by stablemate First Nation over an extra panel January 17, the pacey son of Intello was not to be caught this time as he held sway from bin Suroor’s recent winner Desert Fire.

“He does not make life easy for himself,” Buick said, “but he was a bit calmer this evening and we took him down to the start early which has helped him. He has plenty of natural speed but is not the easiest to settle, so I was happy to let him bowl along out in front and he seemed to really enjoy that.”

Appleby’s new recruit Mubtasim, purchased for 140,000 guineas ($187,675) at the Tattersalls Autumn Horses in Training Sale, made a winning debut for the team in the about seven-furlong nightcap. Sprinting to the fore from the far outside post 14, the Arcano gelding staved off Poet’s Society by three-quarters of a length.

“Mubtasim was great out of the gates and got a completely clean break,” Buick said on godolphin.com.

“Charlie gave me an open canvas, though the one thing he did not want to see was me pulling the horse back. He is a big horse and I wanted to let him use himself.

“He was always within himself, perhaps a little bit exuberant, but he saw it really well and it was a good performance.

“He is an energetic horse, incredibly honest, and puts it all in.”

Mubtasim had back class, having won the lucrative Weatherbys Hamilton as a juvenile and placed in the Sandy Lane (G2), Pavilion (G3), and Royal Ascot’s Jersey (G3) in 2017. He found life difficult on the handicap scene last season, but the five-year-old appears resurgent in Dubai.

Trainer Fawzi Nass and Ahmed Al-Qattan’s Mazzini continued his hot hand at the Carnival. After upstaging Hit the Bid and Faatinah in a January 24 turf dash, the Exceed and Excel gelding enjoyed the step up to about six furlongs and bounded 2 1/2 lengths clear.

“He is a nice sprinter and did well to win first time over 1000 meters because this 1200 meters suits him better,” Nass commented, “but he seems to be thriving here in Dubai. He improved from that outing and credit to Adrie (de Vries) who has given him a really good, confident, ride this evening.”

Mazzini now sports a four-race winning streak, beginning with his last two outings for James Fanshawe in England. Like Mubtasim, he was just picked up at Tattersalls last fall, in his case for 90,000 guineas ($120,308). The Al Quoz Sprint (G1) on World Cup night could become a target for the six-year-old in career form.