May 24, 2020

Sir Winston among erstwhile Dubai World Cup night contenders to follow

Sir Winston and jockey Joel Rosario win the Belmont Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park on June 8, 2019 (c) EquiSport Photos/Jessie Holmes

Had the 25th Dubai World Cup (G1) gone off as planned last Saturday, we would have learned the answers to an entire ledger of open questions. I hadn’t come to the stage of settling on my opinions yet when the spectacle was called off, but there were horses of interest.

As a thought experiment, here are the contenders I was looking forward to watching on Dubai World Cup night, what I wanted to see from them, and where we might spot them down the road.

Dubai World Cup – Sir Winston

Given his late-running style, I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to make him my top pick in a World Cup with such classy pace factors as Benbatl, Mucho Gusto, and Matterhorn unlikely to wilt en masse. But Sir Winston was beginning to grow on me after his prep score at Aqueduct, where he muscled between foes in a smart last-to-first move.

The primary reason is the likelihood that Sir Winston will be better as a 4-year-old than he was at three. Last year, there was no doubt in my mind that he was fortunate to beat Tacitus in the Belmont (G1), courtesy of a superb ride from Joel Rosario. Yet both of Sir Winston’s parents excelled as older horses (Awesome Again and Grade 3 winner La Gran Bailadora). If he could win the third jewel of the Triple Crown shy of his physical peak, how much more might he achieve at full maturity?

Sir Winston didn’t have to win the World Cup to advance this hypothesis. A whirlwind charge into the placings might have been enough to confirm the Belmont form with Tacitus, who provides a useful yardstick.

Considering Sir Winston’s affinity for Belmont Park, it would make sense for trainer Mark Casse to leave him with his New York assistant Jamie Begg who did so well with him last spring. Presumably the summer fixtures for the older male division can be salvaged from the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sir Winston can burnish his Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) credentials in the Empire State.

Dubai Sheema Classic – Ghaiyyath

No points for originality here, since the Godolphin supremo was the favorite going into the about 1 1/2-mile turf test. But there was a mental reservation about the front runner that I was hoping to get cleared up.

Although Ghaiyyath gallops like a world-beater versus lesser, so far he’s been put in his place when challenged early by high-caliber rivals. Hence his course-record romp in the Feb. 20 Dubai Millennium (G3), for all of its visual appeal, taught us nothing.

The Sheema Classic (G1) had the potential to shape up differently. If not for the coronavirus, John Gosden’s Star Catcher would have kept Ghaiyyath honest early. Once she didn’t ship, the tactical situation became easier. Still, Japanese fillies Loves Only You and Curren Bouquetd’or can sit closer when desired. And if Ghaiyyath felt any pressure at all, Japan’s Glory Vase might have been the biggest beneficiary.

Of course, Ghaiyyath could still have passed his Sheema test only to get found out again back at the highest level in Great Britain and France. But trainer Charlie Appleby is right to rank him as superior to his last two Sheema winners, Hawkbill (2018) and Old Persian (2019). And as a Dubawi, Ghaiyyath is eligible to be stronger as a 5-year-old. Note also that he’s a half-brother to European highweight older mare Zhukova, who thrashed males in the 2017 Man o’ War (G1).

Ghaiyyath’s running style would play particularly well on this side of the pond, so I’d hope that the Godolphin brain trust would consider the Arlington Million (G1) after Royal Ascot (fingers crossed we have one). In any event, the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) ought to be on his radar.

Dubai Turf – Admire Mars

We know what Godolphin’s Barney Roy and defending Dubai Turf (G1) champion Almond Eye are capable of, but her compatriot Admire Mars was a surprise package in the Hong Kong Mile (G1) last out. Japan’s champion 2-year-old colt of 2018 was an overlay at Sha Tin, in hindsight, and I was very curious about whether he would back up that performance at Meydan.

Trained by Yasuo Tomomichi, whose Vivlos upset the 2017 Dubai Turf and finished second in the next two runnings, Admire Mars is 6-for-7 at a metric mile. His lone loss at his ideal trip was a ninth in last fall’s Fuji (G3), a lackluster prep that put a lot of a bettors off in the Hong Kong Mile. But Admire Mars was back to his brilliant best second off the layoff, springing the 27-1 upset over Hong Kong stars Waikuku and Beauty Generation.

The Dubai Turf posed a stiffer task on the step up to about 9 furlongs. In his only prior start at the distance, Admire Mars was run down in a classic trial in his first career defeat. Trying to wire that trip at a track like Tokyo is tough, and the winner, Danon Kingly, went on to miss in a photo in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1) before landing a pair of deep Grade 2s over elders. Hence I don’t take that result as definitive for Admire Mars’ limitations.

With more reserved tactics at a flat course like Meydan, Admire Mars was likely to go well. But well enough to outkick Barney Roy or Almond Eye? His immediate relatives had settled for minors in their Dubai ventures. Sire Daiwa Major was third in the 2007 running at old Nad al Sheba, and Admire Mars’ half-sister, Via Firenze, came up just a neck short in the 2017 Balanchine (G2) over this track and trip.

If the Barney Roy question is likely to remain unanswerable, Admire Mars will test his mettle versus Almond Eye in the June 7 Yasuda Kinen (G1). That’s the first bookend for Japanese milers, the matching pair concluded by the Nov. 22 Mile Championship (G1).

Dubai Golden Shaheen – Big Time Baby

Maybe it’s partly underdog syndrome since the Hong Kong dirt specialists lack top-flight opportunities at home, but I am habitually intrigued whenever they turn up in Dubai. Thus Big Time Baby by definition piqued my interest.

In career form at present, the Manfred Man veteran is 3-for-3 on the Sha Tin dirt during the current Hong Kong season. Most recently he zipped about 6 furlongs in 1:07.79 under 133 pounds, an effort that was expected to set him up for Meydan. Big Time Baby has shown class in his defeats on turf as well. Second (while giving three pounds) to Aethero on Oct. 12, he was also runner-up in the Dec. 29 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy (G3).

Big Time Baby would have been a dark horse against the American team led by Imperial Hint and Killybegs Captain, not to mention Japan’s Matera Sky and the locals including Gladiator King. Yet the Hong Kong speedsters can’t be overlooked, not just in the Tapeta era but on dirt too. Remember Rich Tapestry, twice placed in the Golden Shaheen (G1) and successful in the 2014 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1)? And wild longshot Super Jockey, who almost shocked Secret Circle here in 2015?

Perhaps Big Time Baby’s next international assignment would be the Korea Sprint on Sept. 13. According to the South China Morning Post, Man had tried to garner an invitation last fall without success. His rating should be high enough to pass muster this time.

UAE Derby – Serein

The Kentucky Oaks (G1) dream appeared dashed when Serein was a remote third in the UAE Oaks (G3), but adverse circumstances compromised her that day. As if a troubled start and sapping midrace move weren’t enough, the Japanese shipper was found to have bled too. A cleaner, healthier trip could have seen her stage a massive rebound for the connections of 2016 UAE Derby (G2) winner Lani. Serein wouldn’t be the first to improve from an educational run on the Meydan dirt, and she was picking up Joao Moreira.

The daughter of Uncle Mo and Grade 1-winning millionaire Tiz Miz Sue had useful form versus the boys back home. Last year, Serein held her own versus the two who later chased Cafe Pharoah home in the Hyacinth (runner-up Tagano Beauty and third Yaugau). Indeed, she was actually second favorite in the initial Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby points race, the Cattleya Sho, where she flopped behind Dieu du Vin. With the added time going into the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks, maybe Serein can plot a course to Churchill Downs after all.

Al Quoz Sprint – Equilateral

Before Doug O’Neill’s Wildman Jack threw down the gauntlet with his course-record prep on Super Saturday, I was already having a scruple about Equilateral at 6 furlongs. The Juddmonte homebred has spent most of his time at 5 furlongs, not very consistently at that, and got himself gelded last fall. The operation seemed to be the making of him as Equilateral impressed in his Dubai Carnival bow, but he was promptly upset next time at his same optimal trip. Trainer Charlie Hills believed other extenuating factors contributed to his loss.

Even so, I was back to wondering if maybe Equilateral just isn’t a straightforward customer regardless, and it didn’t help that now he was trying to win over 6 for the first time in almost two years. The Al Quoz could have restored my trust in him both as an individual and at the trip. Instead, we’ll have to await the British summer. Royal Ascot would be one focus, but possibly the July Cup (G1) at Newmarket would suit him. Equilateral has an incentive to find proficiency over 6 furlongs – it would help him steer clear of stablemate Battaash, who’s world-class over a panel shorter.

Dubai Gold Cup – Ispolini

Runner-up to stablemate Cross Counter here a year ago, Ispolini hasn’t been seen since his controversial vet scratch before the Melbourne Cup (G1). But he was rampant at the 2019 Carnival, bolting up by more than 10 lengths in the Nad al Sheba Trophy (G3). The Appleby charge’s ability to fire fresh would have made him a sleeper in this spot. His past European form wasn’t as interesting, but the Dubawi blueblood remains relatively unexposed. We’ll get a better read on him when the staying prizes resume, and if Ispolini can follow the same itinerary as last spring, the Yorkshire Cup (G2) could be next.

Godolphin Mile – Midnight Sands

Carnival watchers are aware of the up-and-coming Midnight Sands, who had a serious chance of introducing himself to the wider racing world on this stage. The winner of five straight for Doug Watson, the son of Speightstown took the handicap route rather than plunging into the stakes preps. The Godolphin Mile was to be his acid test versus the likes of Axelrod, Capezzano, Gray Magician, Salute the Soldier et al. By this time next year, Midnight Sands should bring an expanded resume into World Cup night.