The 2017 Dubai World Cup Carnival is already off on a history-making note, as Le Bernardin became the first two-time winner of the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) on Thursday’s opener.

Trained by Ali Rashid al Rayhi for Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed al Maktoum, the eight-year-old son of Bernardini regained his status as a leading local player for the Godolphin Mile (G2) over this same track and trip on World Cup night. Le Bernardin has been around Dubai for so long, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s yet to make it to this most logical of objectives. He requires a fine balancing act from his trainer: getting him to peak race-fitness while simultaneously keeping him fresh enough for the seasonal climax.

Le Bernardin’s repeat victory in Round 1 came via a tactical audible from reigning U.A.E. champion jockey Tadhg O’Shea. Expected to set the pace from his rail draw, he instead found a scramble for the lead. O’Shea wisely eased him back out of the free-for-all, and Le Bernardin swept from just off the pace to prevail by two lengths from Long River.

“He is a great horse for a jockey as he is just so versatile,” O’Shea said. “He has so much early speed and he just naturally took me to the front, but he does not have to lead and I was happy to take a lead.

“The 1600 meters is his optimum trip and I knew he would find plenty when I asked him as he is so brave.

“The Godolphin Mile is his main target and perhaps he will just have one more run before then in the Burj Nahaar (G3) on Super Saturday (March 4).”

Let’s hope connections stick to the game plan and don’t go to the well too often this Carnival.

 

River eventually flowing to US: One of the two disappointments behind Le Bernardin was the filly Polar River, a star of the 2016 Carnival who hasn’t found her way this season. Champion trainer Doug Watson knew she’d need her comeback from a nearly eight-month layoff in a November 17 conditions race, where she actually had to give weight to older males as the 130-pound highweight. Her lackluster fourth that day was explicable, but it still left room for questions.

Watson was convinced we’d see the real Polar River in Round 1, and so was stable jockey Pat Dobbs, who chose her in preference to stablemate Cool Cowboy. Unfortunately, Polar River acted up in the gate, got away poorly, and never contended in eighth. Even worse was the visual impression left by her choppily trudging down the lane on her left lead. While she again can proffer an excuse, the key point is that she’s just not progressing. It’s tough to bridge the gap between the softer targets of her contemporaries last season, and the stiffer open company she’s meeting now.

Interestingly, pre-race, Watson had told Dubai Racing Channel’s “Winning Line” program that Polar River would be bound for a U.S. campaign in her own distaff division after the Carnival. “Promise you” she still flashes her old ability in morning works, her trainer averred. Perhaps a change of scenery, and reverting to filly and mare races, would put her back on song.

Watson’s prior comments on Cool Cowboy were no less revealing. Describing him as “a little stuffy,” Watson said Cool Cowboy might need Round 1 to bring him along further, and he’s likely to cut back to sprinting. He ran right up to those words, looming boldly in the stretch before his wide trip (36 feet more than Le Bernardin, according to Trakus) and fitness questions told over the metric mile, and he settled for fifth. Cool Cowboy should move forward considerably next time.

Emotional rollercoaster: Aside from Polar River, the other Round 1 underachiever was Godolphin’s Emotionless, who could do no better than a wide-trip sixth in his dirt debut. An exciting British juvenile of 2015, the Charlie Appleby pupil hasn’t been the same since undergoing surgery for a knee chip.

Switching to dirt for this reappearance made sense as a pedigree play: out of 2001 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) upsetter Unbridled Elaine, Emotionless is a half-brother to graded dirt winners Etched and Out of Bounds. Appleby had been delighted with his training on dirt, but that didn’t translate to race night at Meydan, and fans were left with a let-down.

Emotionless was traveling decently until he bore out exiting the far turn, possibly shying from the kickback, while plugging on one-paced. It wasn’t hopeless for a first taste of the dirt, and I’d give him another chance on the surface. Still, the clock is ticking for Emotionless to fulfill his early promise.

Love for Amor: Not be overlooked in the Round 1 shuffle is Lindo Amor’s encouraging debut for Mike de Kock. Group 1-placed at about 10 furlongs in his native Argentina, Lindo Amor hadn’t raced since May 1, had a spot of trouble at the break, and had to be niggled along to maintain his position (see the contrast with the more fluent Emotionless early). But Lindo Amor stuck on tenaciously to grab third. Factor in that this metric mile is short of his ideal trip, and you can see why de Kock was pleased.

“He got done at the start, from both sides, and sat in the kickback,” the trainer said on his website. “He ran a very courageous race in good company, tried hard every step of the way and will enjoy a bit further too.

“We are impressed, Lindo Amor is one to be watched.”

Light show a pointer? De Kock had even greater cause for celebration when his South African recruit Light the Lights flashed home in time in the Singspiel S. on turf. The Western Winter gelding thus put himself on the path to Super Saturday’s Jebel Hatta (G1) and World Cup night’s Dubai Turf (G1), both held at this about nine-furlong distance.

Last seen finishing fourth to Smart Call and Legal Eagle in the prestigious J&B Met (G1) last January, Light the Lights ordinarily might have been expected to need this race after a nearly year-long layoff. But de Kock had said “his work has been impressive and he looks the part,” and he performed accordingly to nab the in-form Championship (who was exiting a career high in Abu Dhabi’s National Day Cup).

 

“He was one of the first to arrive here and he was fit and ready, unlike some of the late arrivals we’ve seen fail here over the years in their first desert runs,” de Kock noted afterward.

The Singspiel result rates as a positive sign for de Kock’s more accomplished South African import, Noah from Goa. Look for the 2015 Cape Guineas (G1) hero, third to Legal Eagle and Legislate in the Queen’s Plate (G1) one year ago, later in the Carnival.

“Our star South African three-year-old is now four (on Southern Hemisphere time),” de Kock said on his website. “He hasn’t raced since January. He had a setback at Newmarket on his travels, threw a splint and was out for about 30 days, but he is doing well in Dubai and should race towards the middle or end of the Carnival.”

De Kock’s other Singspiel runners, Sanshaawes and Ertijaal (the Australian-bred version), finished fourth and fifth, respectively. Ertijaal definitely needed the run, having undergone ankle surgery after his last outing in April, and he shaped as if wanting to return to a longer trip.

Seeing double: The Irish-bred Ertijaal is cast from an entirely different mold, as a blistering speed machine who kicked off a training double for Al Rayhi. This Ertijaal was scoring a double for himself too, since he blew away his foes in the same turf dash on opening night in 2016. On Thursday, the gelded son of Oasis Dream was undeterred by his top weight of 132 pounds, and once again illustrated how good he is off the bench, when dominating on the front end.

 

“That was a very good performance under a big weight,” said Jim Crowley, Britain’s champion jockey of 2016 and now Sheikh Hamdan’s retained rider. “He will improve as well fitness-wise and is a good sprinter.

“We broke very well and basically I was always happy as he soon found a nice rhythm and then quickened again.”

Ertijaal, unraced since his close second in last year’s Al Quoz Sprint (G1), is an obvious threat on World Cup night again – with the proviso that the Al Quoz distance has been extended to about six furlongs. That was no hindrance to him in the past, although the internationals will present a much sterner test of his effectiveness beyond about five.

Flash mob: Godolphin notched a winner in the nightcap courtesy of the Appleby-trained Flash Fire, whose widest trip of all kept him free of a lot of scrimmaging. But his victory was more about skill than luck, as he strode out in convincing fashion. Flash Fire had competed in a series of British “heritage handicaps” last season, notably capturing Ascot’s Victoria Cup at his pet seven-furlong trip. Thus he’s a logical type for the January 19 Al Fahidi Fort (G2), where stablemate Safety Check may attempt a three-peat.

The stewards’ reports on this turf handicap read as tales of woe for a number of contenders, including American Hope (14th) and Salateen (last of 16), both deserving a mulligan after interference took them out of their game here.

Australian expat Elite Excalibur, who threw some elbows himself in the stretch rugby, is worth following off his solid fifth. Formerly known as River Wild when trained by Gai Waterhouse, he was fourth in the Australian Guineas (G1) and fifth in the Rosehill Guineas (G1) in 2016. The Fastnet Rock gelding made a winning debut in Singapore for Steven Burridge in his prior start, and he’s eligible to keep progressing, especially going further.

 

Golden start: Young French trainer Nicolas Caullery recorded his first U.A.E. starter and winner courtesy of Golden Wood. Patiently handled by Christophe Soumillon, he unleashed a sustained run from the rear to edge Carbon Dating in an about 1 1/2-mile handicap.

Twice a listed winner in France in 2015, Golden Wood was compromised by illness last year. He did manage a creditable fifth in the Prix d’Hedouville (G3), beaten only a couple of lengths by the smart One Foot in Heaven, and that formline was good enough to prevail at this level.

Indian celebrity Desert God tired to seventh, a reminder of how challenging it is to try the world stage. He did endure a wide trip stalking the pace, in this comeback from a four-month holiday, but Golden Wood covered almost as much ground himself. Perhaps Desert God will strip fitter in his second start, and added distance could help.

 

Topping Frosted: Frosted’s track record of 1:56.67 for about 1 3/16 miles on the Meydan dirt was eclipsed by the unheralded Mizbah (carrying nine fewer pounds) in 1:56.51. Watson’s second stringer (with stable jockey Dobbs going for Storm Belt), Mizbah outbroke his stablemate, bagged the lead under his light weight, and widened his margin to 7 1/2 lengths. Storm Belt was a subpar seventh.

“This horse is just so tough and always gives 110 percent,” rider Sam Hitchcott said of Mizbah. “He loved bowling along in front and then, when I asked him, he quickened really well and that was quite impressive.”

This shaped up as a perfect storm for Mizbah, who was getting 12 pounds from Storm Belt and 15 from de Kock’s debuter Saltarin Dubai (an Argentine Group 1 winner overly assessed at 132 pounds). As an eight-year-old scoring his sixth win from 42 career starts, Mizbah isn’t likely to get as good a set-up again on the Carnival stage.

 

Le Bernardin photo courtesy Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins