International Thoroughbred Racing Editor & Handicapper: Geir W. Stabell 1992 - 2021
LEADING CONTENDERS, DUBAI WORLD CUP DAY
DUBAI WORLD CUP
California Chrome hardly needs an introduction. Racing fans worldwide are all familiar with his resume. To recap; he won the first two legs of the US Triple Crown in 2014, taking Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in great style. The Belmont was a bridge too far, but 'Chrome' bounced back to form in the autumn, to be a close third in the Breeders' Cup Classic and win the Hollywood Derby (where he proved himself on turf).
Last year was not so good, though finishing second in the World Cup was no mean feat. He was shipped to England with the intention of competing at Royal Ascot. California Chrome looked sharp on the Newmarket gallops but a last minute setback ruled him out of the Prince of Wales's Stakes. Sent back to trainer Art Sherman in California, the imposing chestnut was given a long time to recuperate. He returned to action in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita in January. The five-year-old was a bit rusty but far too good for his rivals. Imperative was held at bay in the closing stages, with the winning margin 1 ¼ lengths. Hoppertunity took third.
Some observers knocked the form but that makes little sense. Chrome needed the outing, and he tired a bit in the closing stages. He will be much sharper in the World Cup. His handicap win here on February 25 also indicates an upswing in form. Besides, Hoppertunity and Imperative came back to dominate the San Antonio Stakes in February, so his comeback run looks solid enough. It is impossible to say whether California Chrome will get back to his absolute best but if he does, well then the others are probably running for second.
Frosted is a four-year-old son of Tapit, one of the top stallions in North America, and this Godolphin owned runner made a sparkling seasonal debut when winning the second round of the Al Maktoum Challenge in early February.
Sure, he had by far the best form going into the race, and he was a hot favourite, but Frosted still exceeded expectations as he powered home by 5 lengths from Gold City. The 1900-metres track record was broken and Frosted had clearly improved on his three-year-old form. Form that was pretty solid. After tasting top level success in the Wood Memorial in April, Frosted went on to take fourth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes, on both occasions running with great credit in the wake in Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. He was also third in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, when Keen Ice managed to beat American Pharoah after Frosted had put serious pressure in the favourite from the outset but tired in the closing stages.
He returned to winning form when gaining an easy win in the Pennsylvania Derby in September, then failed to show his true form when facing American Pharoah yet again in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where Frosted beat just one of his seven rivals. Frosted had a tough campaign last year but he has stood up to it really well and he could be in for a very successful season. Proven over the Meydan track, he has a good chance in the World Cup.
An American bred son of Medaglia d'Oro out of a daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch, Mshawish has a pedigree pointing at strong form on dirt tracks. Nevertheless, this handsome runner began his career on turf, and progressed to become a very good one too. He won the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap last winter, before running third to Solow in the Dubai Turf. This time, Mshawish returns to Dubai with an even bigger assignment. He is set for the World Cup.
Certainly the most versatile of the big race contenders, Mshawish is coming off a career best performance in Florida, having captured the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream in February. Mshawish travelled very strongly just off the pace in the prestigious event, and proved much too good for Valid, who he had beaten also when taking the Hal's Hope Stakes at the same venue four weeks earlier. Switching Mshawish to dirt has been a success and, although the competition will be stronger and the distance 200 metres longer, he may well step up again. Recent form counts for a lot in racing, and the Donn has been a good guide to the World Cup in the past. Mshawish has a lot going for him.
The one question mark is the distance. How will he cope with 2,000 metres?
This US contender made his fame when he became the only horse to beat American Pharoah last year. It happened in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August, a race contested over the same distance as the World Cup. American Pharoah and Frosted hooked up in a gruelling duel up front, a duel Frosted grudgingly lost, but Keen Ice came with a strong finish to pass them both in the last few strides. He beat the champion by three parts of a length, with Frosted 2 ¼ lengths further adrift. Was it a fluke? It was markedly Keen Ice's best run but he is undoubtedly a serious horse, and must be respected in the World Cup. His chances increase if the race is run at a strong early pace.
He had been runner-up to American Pharoah in the Haskell Invitational four weeks prior to the Travers, and he ran fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic – when a lack of pace was very much against him. Keen Ice took in one more top level event in 2015, and was a fast finishing fourth behind Effinex, Hoppertunity and Looks to Spare in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in November. He resurfaced at Gulfstream Park ten weeks later, to have his World Cup prep in the Donn Handicap. Five horses beat him, with Mshawish on top, though note that Keen Ice was carrying top weight and that he once more stayed on well from the back. The Donn is 1800 metres. Keen Ice is much better over 2000, but he disappointed when finishing seventh to Special Fighter on Super Saturday.
Can Keen Ice bounce back in the big race?
A winner of five races and $1,8 million from 18 outings, Hoppertunity has been one of the best thoroughbreds in North America over the past two years. He has, however, also been a bit of a 'nearly horse' in the top flight. Never quite able to go right to the top, he has been knocking on the door on more than one occasion – and one gets the feeling that one day he will get his breakthrough.
That said, Hoppertunity does have a Grade 1 win to his name, having captured the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs as a three-year-old in 2014. Last season, he won the San Pasqual Stakes over 8.5 furlongs (1700 metres) at Santa Anita, before going on to very good runner-up efforts in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (nose behind Hard Aces), Awesome Again Stakes (behind Smooth Roller) and Clark Handicap (less than a length off Effinex). The Bob Baffert trainee opened his 2016 campaign by finishing third to fellow World Cup contender California Chrome in the San Pasqual at Santa Anita in January. At first glance, that result might indicate that he has no chance against 'Chrome' this time but wait a minute; the distance, the pace scenario and the weights favoured the winner greatly that day, and Hoppertunity was doing all his best work at the finish. Stretching out to 2000 metres will be to his liking at Meydan. Four weeks after the San Pasqual, he stepped up to win the San Antonio Stakes, at about 1800 metres. The race turned into a fight between him and Imperative, and Baffert's favourite won it by a nose. Donworth was half a length back in third. Imperative and Donworth (who is still far too immature) were both well beaten behind the shock winner Melatonin in the Santa Anita Handicap next time out, though that was on a day when the track seemed to favour speed, and perhaps we should not read too much into that formline.
Hoppertunity looks an each-way chance in the DWC. He is similar to Keen Ice, in that he thrives in races with a strong early pace. Stamina is his forte.
This five-year-old son of champion juvenile Teofilo has taken longer to blossom than his father did. Special Fighter was a nice, useful horse when trained in England in his younger days, but he has turned a corner bigtime at Meydan this season. Who would have thought that this Musabah Al Muhairi trained chestnut would win a Group 1 as the Carnival opened? His trainer perhaps, though even he must have been somewhat baffled as Special Fighter ran his rivals into the ground for a solid 4 ½-length win of the Al Maktoum Challenge Round III three weeks ago.
Covering the full World Cup distance, Special Fighter led from start to finish, and he quickened from the front early in the straight. Within a few strides it was clear that he would not be caught. He ran on in great style under jockey Fernando Jara to win the race in a sharp 2.03.09 – a new track record. Jara rode Invasor to World Cup fame back in 2007 and in Special Fighter he seems to have found another live wire. Gun Pit, a solid dirt runner from Hong Kong, ran second in the Al Maktoum III, with 2 ¾ lengths back to Faulkner in third. The result was quite incredible. Okay, the two favourites Mubtaahij (fourth) and Keen Ice (seventh) both had a serious off day, but Special Fighter's performance was of a very high level.
The question now is; can he repeat it? After all, it was significantly better than anything he had achieved in his 17 previous races. Though it is worth bearing in mind that he 'won for fun' when scooting up by 5 lengths in a handicap in January, and that he lost a shoe when beaten a long way into sixth behind Frosted in the second round of the challenge series.
Previously trained by Luca Cumani, this five-year-old was a very smart performer over the 'Sheema' distance in England last year. He peaked by winning the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in July. Postponed had been beaten into third behind Snow Sky and Eagle Top at the Royal Ascot meeting five weeks earlier, but he turned the tables on both these rivals when it mattered the most – albeit only just versus Eagle Top, who he beat by a nose after a thrilling finish.
It was Postponed's fourth career win, and he gained a fifth by landing the Prix Foy at Longchamp in September. He beat Spiritjim by three parts of a length that day, with Baino Hope third and Dolniya fourth. Dubai racing fans will remember Dolniya's fine win in the Sheema Classic last year. All in all, Postponed's form is very solid, though perhaps not quite yet what we would call world class. He impressed once also as a three-year-old, outclassing Snow Sky in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York. Postponed is ideally suited by 2400 metres, and he goes well on any ground. His prep run for the Sheema came in the City Of Gold on Super Saturday, when he was a visually impressive 3-length winner over the French challenger Dariyan. Postponed is definitely a leading player.
This colt was the top three-year-old in Japan last season, when he won the two most important classics, the Satsuki Sho (2,000 Guineas) at Nakayama in April and the Tokyo Yushun (Derby) in May. Unfortunately, a crack at the best older horses in big autumn races never happened, as Duramente sustained injuries to both his forelegs and found himself on the sidelines. A long rest was needed, leading up to a return to training in January. Fully recovered, the son of King Kamehameha came back to racing action at Nakayama on February 28 when he beat Ambitious by a neck to win the 1800-metres Nakayama Kinen. Real Steel finished third.
Duramente's 2,000 Guineas success last year came at the chief expense of Real Steel, who is also owned by Sunday Racing Co Ltd. Duramente won the 2,000-metres contest readily by 1 ½ lengths. Eventual St. Leger winner Kitasan Black took third. Duramente stepped up to 2,400 metres in the Derby, staged six weeks later. Quite dominant once more, the Mirco Demuro ridden favourite obliged by almost two lengths from Satono Rasen, with Satono Crown back in third (both were Group 2 winners in 2015).
Duramente's dam, Admire Groove, was a top class filly who won back-to-back editions of the Queen Elizabeth Commemorative Cup at Kyoto. His rider is an excellent horseman whose name made international headlines when he rode a superb race to win the Dubai World Cup on Victoire Pisa five years ago. Can Demuro strike again at Meydan? Of course he can. He has a fine partner in Duramente, a classy performer open to further improvement this year.
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