Saturday, March 25 features the richest day in horse racing: Dubai World Cup day! Albeit only metaphorically, Picks and Ponderings is there.
The card features nine races, all graded stakes. This piece will feature Nicolle Neulist's analysis of the UAE Derby (G2) and the Dubai Turf (G1). The UAE Derby is a Kentucky Derby points prep, and drew a full international field of sixteen horses. The Dubai Turf has a field of thirteen after the defection of defending champion Real Steel, and that field includes defending Arlington Million champion Mondialiste. Below the discussions of these two races, there will be a chart with their selections for all nine races at Meydan on Saturday.
In a separate piece, both Nicolle Neulist and Paul Mazur discuss the day's feature: the Dubai World Cup.
You can watch the Dubai World Cup on NBC Sports Network. Their telecast will run from 9:30am-12:30pm CST. It will feature live coverage of the Dubai Turf, the Sheema Classic, and the Dubai World Cup, as well as a replay of the UAE Derby.
Selections for the Dubai Gold Cup, Al Quoz Sprint, Dubai Turf, and Sheema Classic are made for turf only. Updated March 24 to include a cross-link to the Dubai World Cup preview, television information, and to change the odds to the morning lines for American pools.
Meydan Racecourse: Saturday, March 25
Race 4: United Arab Emirates Derby (G2), 1,900 metres (about 9.5 furlongs) on the dirt, post time 5:25pm GST (8:25am CDT)
Once again, the Road to the Kentucky Derby makes its one overseas foray with the UAE Derby. The race is the first 100-40-20-10 point prep for the Kentucky Derby, and also offers shares of a $2,000,000 purse. Run since 2000, the race has never produced a Kentucky Derby winner, or a winner of any of the three-year-old Classics in the United States. However, 2014's winner, Toast of New York, saw significant success on these shores later in his three-year-old season. He finished second in both the Pacific Classic (GI) and the Breeders' Cup Classic (GI). More recent winners of this race have been heading to the American classics. Mubtaahij (2015) finished fourth behind American Pharoah in the Belmont. Lani (2016) came stateside for all three of the Triple Crown races, with his best finish a third behind Creator in the Belmont. Both Mubtaahij and Lani will contend the Dubai World Cup this year.
So far, THUNDER SNOW has been the breakout three-year-old at Meydan. The son of Helmet focused on grass races at two, finishing his juvenile season with an easy victory in the seven-furlong Criterium International (G1) at Saint-Cloud to end the year. He returned in last month's UAE 2000 Guineas (G3), trying dirt for the first time. The layoff and the surface change proved no problem for THUNDER SNOW, and neither did the step up to a mile trip. Maiden BEE JERSEY looked to mount a credible challenge turning for home, but THUNDER SNOW flicked him off like a gnat and drew away to win by almost six easy lengths. His trainer Saeed bin Suroor knows how to win a UAE Derby; after all, he has seven to his name, though none since 2011. The question with THUNDER SNOW -- particularly at a short price -- is whether he will stay this longer trip against stiffer company. Sire Helmet did his best work at middle distances. Dam Eastern Joy did produce Ihtimal, a G2 winner at today's 1,900 metre distance. But, his other siblings have done better going a bit shorter. Add to this that THUNDER SNOW is marooned out in the 13 hole, and it may be worth looking elsewhere.
LANCASTER BOMBER aims to do the same thing THUNDER SNOW has done: take strong grass form onto the dirt. This space thinks he can. Though his only career victory came in a maiden race last year, he notched a second behind Churchill in the Dubai Dewhurst (G1) last year, and then another place finish behind Oscar Performance in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). Trainer Aidan O'Brien knows how to make this move -- he has twice won the UAE Derby, and both times the horse had last raced in the Breeders' Cup. His winner in 2013, Lines of Battle (known now in Hong Kong at Helene Super Star), had last run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and had not previously raced on dirt, just like LANCASTER BOMBER. And, O'Brien has had success getting War Front babies to go Classic or near-Classic distances on dirt. Like LANCASTER BOMBER, Lines of Battle is a War Front, as is Declaration of War. The latter finished third in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) for O'Brien in his only career dirt try. As long as LANCASTER BOMBER can rate and rally like he did in the Breeders' Cup, and not battle early with the likes of COSMO CHARLIE, FAWREE, or perhaps even THUNDER SNOW, he can do this.
For third? It came down to MASTER PLAN and EPICHARIS. MASTER PLAN comes for Todd Pletcher. He has won over all-weather and turf. His only dirt start was a second-place finish. The stablemate who beat him in that dirt start is turning out okay so far: Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapwrit. On one hand, Pletcher would not ship a horse to the Middle East just for fun. But Pletcher is still on the duck in Dubai, and in American betting pools, a Pletcher/Velazquez production may get overbet. Instead, Japanese invader EPICHARIS appeals just a bit more. He is undefeated in four starts, including two victories over 1,800 metres. His last-out victory in the Hyacinth on February 19 was professional: he tracked inside and then squeezed through a slim hole along the rail to pass leader Adirato late. That was his first start since November, putting him second off a lay. EPICHARIS has tactical speed, a closer-stalking style that should keep him out of a pace battle but keep him close enough if the track is playing forward for the big day. Regular rider Christophe Lemaire ships out from Japan to ride him. The biggest question is if EPICHARIS will be fully cranked; his Hyacinth victory won him a spot in the Kentucky Derby, so this may be a waypoint. But, he has shown the talent, and a trip to Dubai would be an expensive waypoint without prize money to show for it.
#3 LANCASTER BOMBER (7/1)
#13 THUNDER SNOW (8/5)
#10 EPICHARIS (5/1)
Longshot: In addition to THUNDER SNOW, two others in the field will wear the Godolphin blue for trainer Saeed bin Suroor: FLY AT DAWN and TOP SCORE. Both have a shot to get in the frame, but it is the latter who intrigues a bit more. #5 TOP SCORE (15/1) has tried dirt once before, and did finish a well-beaten third behind FLY AT DAWN in that start. However, TOP SCORE has won his next two starts, both going 1,400 metres on grass. He is going the right way. Also intriguing is the fact that TOP SCORE is a son of Hard Spun. Though 1,900 metres is a serious step up in trip, that helps bolster his chances that he'll take well to this longer dirt race. And, as the Godolphin "C" entry here, TOP SCORE should be the right price for those who want to take an each-way shot.
Race 7: Dubai Turf (G1), 1,800 metres (about 9 furlongs) on the turf, post time 7:30pm GST (10:30am CDT)
Run for the 22nd time this year, the Dubai Turf began its life as the Dubai Duty Free, and carried that name through 2014. It began its life as a dirt race, but was transferred to the turf in 2000. Among its early winners on the grass was the French globetrotter Jim and Tonic (2001): winner of the 1999 Hong Kong Cup (GI - HK), second in the 1998 Woodbine Mile, and third in the 1999 Woodbine Mile (GI - CAN). Solow (2015) was a force on the international middle-distance turf stage all year long. After his Dubai Turf victory, he won the Prix d'Ispahan (GI - FR), Queen Anne (GI - ENG), Sussex (GI - ENG), and the Queen Elizabeth II (GI - ENG) en route to the Cartier Award for Europe's Champion Older Horse of 2015. The purse this year is $6,000,000, equal to that of the Sheema Classic, and below only the World Cup.
Last year's winner, Japanese runner Real Steel, originally entered to defend his title. However, he bled during training on Tuesday, and has been ruled out. Still, that leaves a field of thirteen, including several familiar faces from Arlington. MONDIALISTE and DEAUVILLE, the 1-3 finishers from the 2016 Arlington Million (G1), race here. DECORATED KNIGHT, originally entered for last year's Million but scratched after getting loose in the barn the night before the race, also contests the Dubai Turf. LONG ISLAND SOUND, second beaten a head in the 2016 Secretariat Stakes (G1), turns up here as well.
Usually, it makes sense: Dubai is in the desert, so point the horses who really like firm ground there. This year, Mother Nature has thrown a wrench into that piece of common wisdom. Rain has been the theme of the week, and through this writing, the forecast calls for more wet weather on Friday and Saturday. That makes a pair of horses who stand to be shorter prices, RIBCHESTER and DEAUVILLE, less attractive than they would be. Though the ground will not likely be a bog (think last year's Royal Ascot), it will have some moisture. As such, horses who have both the class and the ability to handle some cut in the ground can go right to the front of the line.
DECORATED KNIGHT, who has acquitted himself nicely on good-to-soft going, has made an excellent return this year. In his first race back after an extended layoff, the five-year-old Galileo entire gamely prevailed in a 2,000-metre listed affair over the Lingfield all-weather. From that, he shipped to Meydan and contested the Jebel Hatta (G1), the course and distance prep for the Dubai Turf. Thanks to his antics the night before last year's Arlington Million, the Jebel Hatta was his first try in a Group 1, and he scored by a neck. Of course, the Dubai Turf is a tougher Group 1 than the Jebel Hatta. But, third off the lay and still lightly raced, DECORATED KNIGHT has upside. His relatively inside post should allow him to save ground, and he won the Jebel Hatta from the rail. Traffic shouldn't faze him. He hasn't tried this level of company yet, but is in the right form to do so. Finally, the humans inspire confidence. Regular rider Andrea Azteni, who has a few wins in Dubai, returns here. And, trainer Roger Charlton has won with two of his five Dubai shippers -- including, of course, DECORATED KNIGHT himself last out.
Regally bred French shipper ZARAK, a four-year-old Dubawi son of Arc winner Zarkava, also deserves a long look here. He can handle softer or firmer going. He gets the services of excellent Meydan rider Christophe Soumillon -- who just so happens to be his regular rider, too. He has proven his ability on softer ground as well as firmer. And he, like DECORATED KNIGHT, also has a victory over the Meydan course. ZARAK scored comfortably in his local prep, the Dubai Millennium Stakes (G3). That came at 2,000 metres; he cuts back a bit in trip here. That is the biggest question with ZARAK -- will he be effective against this class of company when cutting back to just 1,800 metres? If he can, he looms large. But, with that question extant, he may be underlaid at the windows.
MUTAKAYYEF has been the picture of consistency throughout his career. In 14 races, he has never missed the board. He has both a tactical running style and the ability to take his form anywhere he goes. Though he has not raced since the Woodbine Mile last September, where he finished third behind Tepin, he has always fired well first off the lay. The Dubai Turf is the toughest level of company he has faced first off the lay, of course, but this level of company is nothing new to this six-year-old Sea the Stars gelding. MUTAKAYYEF is a little more tactical than another horse this space considered for this third slot, the more closing-style MONDIALISTE. That one should appreciate the stretch out in trip, but may find it difficult to get all the way there behind a slower pace, with other contenders getting the jump on him.
#4 DECORATED KNIGHT (10/1)
#2 ZARAK (2/1)
#6 MUTAKAYYEF (4/1)
Longshot: Though much of the field has tactical ability, few really do like to go straight to the lead. VERY SPECIAL does it sometimes, but her final prep for this race was dreadful. #13 LONG ISLAND SOUND (20/1), on the other hand, comes fresh off the lay for Aidan O'Brien. He is the "B" entry in the Coolmore trio: firm-going loving DEAUVILLE is the "A", perpetual undersides-at-best sort COUGAR MOUNTAIN is the "C". LONG ISLAND SOUND does face a class test here, as it will be the four-year-old's first tilt against top-notch older company. But, regular rider Seamie Heffernan returns to the irons, and he knows exactly what to do: send him along. The trip hardly concerns, as LONG ISLAND SOUND has proven able to handle 1,600 metres as well as 2,000. The rain is a bit of a worry, as his horse has been best over better ground. But, he has been useful enough with some cut in the ground, and the likely pace scenario plays well for this son of War Front.
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Saturday's Dubai World Cup day card at Meydan. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!