26 Mar 2017

HRH Princess Haya: "Dubai World Cup Contenders"


One of the joys for those with a passion for racing is that every horse has a story.

There are the track superstars, of course, who command headlines and much attention. However, even humbler horses are likely to have a tale or two in their background worthy of telling.

Racing is not just about raw talent and speed. It is also about relationships. The affinity between a racehorse and those who train it is crucial to success. How they bond with their jockey can be a critical factor in a race.

Some horses have perhaps overcome career-threatening injuries to make it to the top; others have thrived only after they moved into the care of a different trainer.

This is part of what makes racing so special.

The horses who will line up to contest the Dubai World Cup are already champions in their own right, with owners who have belief in their talent and ability to win the world's most coveted horse race.

Last year's winner, the American-bred California Chrome, is the kind of horse people will still talk about in decades to come. He is a champion in every respect. As his career peaked, it seemed he was an unstoppable force.

He is living proof of the difference trusting relationships can make in racing. California Chrome was an inconsistent track performer until he was paired with jockey Victor Espinoza. The pair never looked back as they chalked up an impressive series of wins. The horse has now been retired to stud.

Lining up for this year's Dubai World Cup is a racing star of equal stature, Arrogate, owned by Juddmonte Farms. The colt, born in the American racing heartland of Kentucky, is a class act. He was named the Longines World's Best Racehorse in 2016, which reflects his stellar season that year as a three-year-old.

Followers of racing form seem largely agreed that Arrogate is the most likely horse in the field of 14 to win the Cup race. This will no doubt buoy his owner, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah, of Saudi Arabia, who entrusts the horse's care to California-based trainer Bob Baffert. Baffert has reportedly said that Arrogate has travelled well to Dubai.

Arrogate's quality and form are unquestionable, but racing has a long history of throwing up unlikely champions and surprise performances. The rest of the field this year oozes quality, but the big question is whether they have the ability to match Arrogate.

Two of the likeliest contenders are Mubtaahij and Gun Runner.

Mubtaahij is an Irish-bred colt whose quality was there for all to see when he won the UAE Derby in 2015. He also ran second to California Chrome in last year's World Cup. The five-year-old, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, shows great consistency in his racing - something which adds to the enjoyment for any owner.

Gun Runner hails from Kentucky and is owned by American-based Winchell Thoroughbreds, a company which spearheads the Winchell family's prominent racing and breeding interests. The horse has raced successfully all over the United States, so is clearly a good traveller. That kind of resilience may well work to his advantage in his relocation to Dubai for his final preparations.

Gun Runner was reported to be travelling in the equine equivalent of "business class", so clearly his people are pulling out all stops to get him just right for the big race. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, won the Cup in 2008 with the great Curlin.

Hoppertunity is another Bob Baffert-trained horse from Kentucky. The six-year-old is owned by American businessman Michael Pegram.

Mr Pegram shows that racing dreams can come true. He grew up in Indiana, and in his early years enjoyed racing at Ellis Park Racecourse and the Churchill Downs track. He dreamed that one day he would own a winner of the Kentucky Derby, one of the most prestigious races in the US. The horse that delivered that dream was Real Quiet, who stormed home to win the Derby in 1998. Real Quiet marched on to win another top American race, the Preakness Stakes, just weeks later. The Baffert-Pegram team have history in Dubai, too, winning the World Cup in 2001 with Captain Steve.

Most will agree that Hoppertunity has the attributes to step up in the World Cup, and he showed his class in finishing third last year.

Neolithic is yet another horse bred in Kentucky, adding to the strong American contingent. The four-year-old colt earned an invitation to the Dubai World Cup after running a game third in January's Pegasus World Cup Invitational, which was won by Arrogate. It was Neolithic's first run in such top-tier company, which made his effort even more admirable.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has acknowledged the quality of the field that Neolithic faces, but summed it up in one short sentence that epitomises racing: "You never know what can happen."

Another really consistent performer in the field is Irish-bred Special Fighter, who hails from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's own Darley breeding operation. He is owned by Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.

Special Fighter is a fine campaigner and I have no doubt his trainer, former New Zealand jockey Maria Ritchie, will have him well prepared for the race. He has shown he is especially well suited to the World Cup distance, contested over 2000 metres.

Awardee and Lani, owned by Koji Maeda, are among Japan's hopes in the race. The seven-year-old Awardee is the older half-brother of four-year-old Lani, both of whom have Kentucky breeding. Neither is considered a top contender, but it is always worth remembering that those who know these horses well wouldn't enter a race like the Dubai World Cup unless they thought a good showing was likely.

Pletcher trains another horse in the field - five-year-old Keen Ice, owned by Donegal Racing. He is another starter who was bred in Kentucky. Like many horses in the field, his breeding lines are impressive. Keen Ice is a son of Curlin, who was American Horse of the Year in 2008 and 2009. Keen Ice was eighth in last year's Dubai World Cup, which was then followed by a six-month break. He is now back and it would be a bold individual prepared to dismiss any horse that was able to defeat the great US champion American Pharoah, as he did in 2015 in the Travers Stakes at New York's Saratoga racetrack. Keen Ice was fourth behind Arrogate in January's Pegasus World Cup in the United States.

American-bred Apollo Kentucky, owned by the Apollo Thoroughbred Club and trained by Kenji Yamauchi, has raced with considerable success in Japan. The five-year-old will be looking to add to his impressive list of wins, and is rarely out of the placings.

The Japanese contingent is completed by Gold Dream, owned by Katsumi Yoshida and trained by Osamu Hirata. The horse has already shown his ability to win at Group One level, taking out a mile race in Tokyo last month.

Long River is a Darley-bred seven-year-old who hails from Kentucky. He is owned by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum and trained by Salem bin Ghadayer. He won a round of the Al Maktoum Challenge early in March, which makes him a deserving starter in the big race. Sheikh Hamdan has won the big race twice, in 1999 and 2007.

The most exotic contender in the field is the five-year-old South American mare Furia Cruzada. She is a well-travelled competitor and a triple South American winner at Group 1 level, which speaks of her quality. Her owner, Avaz Ismoilov, will be hoping for great things come race day, and she has already tasted success at Meydan this year, winning a round of the Al Maktoum Challenge.

Move Up completes the field and will be carrying the hopes of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, through his Godolphin racing enterprise. The four-year-old colt with Irish bloodlines is trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who has won the World Cup a remarkable seven times. He is rarely out of the placings and Move Up's form continues to improve, raising the tantalising prospect that just maybe he can step up yet again on World Cup day. Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin have chalked up seven victories in the Cup, the latest in 2014 with African Story.

So much talent, so many backgrounds. Racing is exciting and unpredictable. Ability counts for a lot on these big racing occasions, but so many other factors come into play when the horses lope on to the track.

Will it be Arrogate's day? Or will we see another horse race to glory? Only one thing is certain. The Dubai World Cup will cement the reputation of the winning horse at the very top tier of world racing.