Godolphin’s turf celebrity Benbatl swiftly answered the dirt question in Thursday’s $450,000 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) at Meydan, but the follow-up question will take a bit longer to decide.
Will Sheikh Mohammed accept his invitation to the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29? Or keep him fresh for the Emirates’ homegrown masterpiece, the $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1) on March 28?
While both will serve up stiffer competition than he met in Round 2, Benbatl is also eligible to progress from a dirt debut where he was familiarizing himself. The Saeed bin Suroor trainee had been working on the Tapeta at his Al Quoz base, but the dirt was a pop quiz in race conditions. As discussed in the aftermath of his comeback victory in the Jan. 10 Singspiel (G2), Benbatl had two qualities making dirt worth the risk: sire Dubawi and a forward running style. Both made for a successful experiment.
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Breaking sharply from post 3, Benbatl settled into a good stalking spot behind dueling leaders Roman Rosso and Chiefdom. Main rival Gronkowski, last year’s Dubai World Cup near-misser, was reserved a little farther back before being driven along. As Gronkowski was trying to pick up widest of all on the far turn, Benbatl was joining – and dispatching – the pacesetters with ease. Jockey Christophe Soumillon just pushed him out to maintain his focus to the wire.
Military Law, the only opponent to stay within range, rounded out the all-Dubawi exacta. Coming off his new career high in the Dec. 5 Entisar, Military Law traveled well on the rail but lost precious time angling out to chase Benbatl. The winner had flown by then, and Military Law did well to whittle the margin to two lengths.
Gronkowski churned on another 6 3/4 lengths astern in third. Although well below his World Cup form, it’s worth remembering that the brawny son of Lonhro needs to race himself fit. The Saudi Cup has long been the target, and trainer Salem bin Ghadayer will likely have him primed for Riyadh.
Roman Rosso held fourth from Montsarrat and For the Top. Chiefdom, Kimbear, Saltarin Dubai, and New Trails concluded the order of finish.
Aside from the visual impression, Benbatl’s performance stood up on the clock too. His time of 1:56.80 for about 1 3/16 miles was just off Frosted’s stakes record of 1:56.67 set in 2016.
Soumillon cited the class edge but also explained how Benbatl was adjusting along the way:
He was the best horse in the field by far. For sure, it was the first time on the dirt, but when the horses are really good, they can handle both surfaces. He has good gate speed, which is important for dirt racing. He was cruising the whole way.
I was worried on the back straight, because he didn’t change legs properly—I had to force him twice to stay on his right leg. On the last turn, he stayed on his right leg for 200 meters, so I was little disappointed. Finally, he changed and when I came into the straight, I could feel straight away that he was able to run away and he did quite impressively.
Bin Suroor was quick to invoke two-time World Cup hero Thunder Snow:
It’s good to see him really travel well and win that easily. To see the jockey, who rode Thunder Snow to win the last two Dubai World Cups, ride him with confidence and in the last three furlongs he’s still on the bridle shows his class.
We have always known he’s a special horse on the turf, but Sheikh Mohammed wanted to run him on the dirt to see how he would run and it was a good decision from the boss. Sometimes you just have to give the horses a chance (on the dirt). Some can handle both surfaces. He handled it well and Christophe kept him handy in the race, which was the plan for him. He won it well, thank God. It was a good decision.
A Group 1 winner on three continents in 2018, Benbatl captured the Dubai Turf (G1), Bayerisches Zuchtrennen (G1), and Caulfield (G1), and finished runner-up in Winx’s fourth Cox Plate (G1). His performance Thursday implies that he’s up to the top level on dirt as well, at least at Meydan.
Benbatl’s status for the Saudi Cup is of keen interest not only to international racing fans, but others on tenterhooks for a possible invitation. The Saudi Cup authorities published preliminary fields on Wednesday, with Benbatl among the 11 listed for the $20 million affair. The U.S. invitees remain as expected, pending whether Gift Box stays home at Santa Anita as trainer John Sadler has intimated he might. Two slots are reserved for Saudi-based horses to be named later (one being the winner of Saturday’s Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup).
There was a groundbreaking score of a different sort in the $250,000 UAE 2000 Guineas (G3): California shipper Fore Left used his early speed to post the first U.S. win in a classic historically dominated by local trainers.
Trained by Doug O’Neill, whose Carnival runners had been running well without winning, the Reddam Racing colorbearer got off to a flyer from post 14. Jockey William Buick, who was available in the absence of a Charlie Appleby entrant, judiciously crossed over, and Fore Left dictated terms the rest of the way. The Twirling Candy colt opened up down the lane before the placegetters gained on him late, finishing the metric mile in 1:38.43.
The maiden Zabardast got up for second. Emblem Storm salvaged third in a photo with Lake Causeway, whom he’d beaten in a maiden last out. Among the disappointments were Guineas Trial victor Commanding (eighth), Al Bastakiya Trial romper Laser Show (10th), and Keeneland maiden winner Liam’s Legend (11th in his debut for Doug Watson).
Fore Left’s prior stakes victories had come in sprints, in last summer’s Tremont and the Oct. 20 Sunny Slope. Third in the Best Pal (G2) and Golden Nugget, he was unplaced in the Del Mar Futurity (G1), American Pharoah (G1), and most recently the grassy Cecil B. DeMille (G3).
Between his profile stateside and his finish here, it’s open to question whether Fore Left will carry his speed over an additional 300 meters in the remaining UAE classics.
Buick wasn’t being doctrinaire either way:
Doug O’Neill and his team were very confident that this horse had more speed than any other horse in this race, which he showed, but of course, I had to work hard and it took me a long time to eventually get across. He set good fractions, got a little bit of a breather on the turn and then kicked again. He’s just a very game, honest horse who stuck on very well. He’s got a lot of speed and stayed the mile.
I guess they’ll be pointing him to the UAE Derby (G2) now, which is another furlong and a half, so we’ll see about that. It was a huge performance from the horse to get where he did, from where he did and in the manner he did. He got there within himself and put himself in a position after three furlongs to control the race, but it took a good horse to do it and that’s what he is.
O’Neill, speaking via phone to Dubai Racing Club publicity, believes the race shape of the Guineas had more to do with his tiring late:
With the post and the way the race was run with a little bend before the backstretch, he had to work a little extra-hard to get into position, so that was very impressive – but that’s why William is a top jockey. He did exactly what he had to do and didn’t overdo it. He got a little tired late, but probably had a lot to do with what I just mentioned and that he had two months off.
This race will do him a world of good. After this, we will see how he comes out. If he’s diving into his feed tub, we may run him one more time (in the March 7 Al Bastakiya on Super Saturday) but if for any reason he shows fatigue, we’ll wait for the (UAE) Derby.
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