With the Dubai World Cup Carnival kicking off last Thursday, it’s time to resume our weekly review of the Meydan action. By analyzing the performances, we aim to get a bead on the Carnival; hence my attempt at a pun in the title.

The featured race on the opener was the Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) on dirt, but the most lasting impression was created by turf sprinter Ertijaal.

In a sensational reappearance from a 10-month layoff, and in his first try at about 5 furlongs, Sheikh Hamdan’s homebred put on an exuberant display of speed. While no world beaters were taking him on, there were a few useful types that he simply mauled. His 4-length margin, over that minimum trip down the straight, is pretty gaudy.

And the clock backed up the visuals: Ertijaal blitzed in :56.38, just off the course record of :56.21 set by Hong Kong flyer Amber Sky in the 2014 Al Quoz Sprint (G1) on World Cup night. Nor was Ertijaal assisted by a light weight – he winged it under 131 pounds.

But note the contrarian view put forth by Pat Cummings, who’s thankfully still commenting on Dubai from his new perch in Hong Kong. Cummings tweeted that Ertijaal got away with softer early fractions, so perhaps we shouldn’t be giving way to “hype.” (Then further discussion ensued about whether the splits and distance were correct, etc.)

Although it’s always valuable to have the consensus challenged, I think that Ertijaal’s performance deserves the plaudits. Few horses could have ripped a field apart that way, and Ertijaal has always had a big reputation since his early days in England. For original trainer William Haggas, he just missed to European champion 2-year-old colt Toormore on debut, aired next time, and readily won his first two over Lingfield’s Polytrack as a sophomore before bombing out in the 2000 Guineas (G1). Ertijaal subsequently lost his edge, got a change of scenery to Dubai, and rounded into form last Carnival. Time has made all the difference. The Irish-bred son of Oasis Dream could just now fulfill his abundant early promise.

I’ll put in a good word for another Sheikh Hamdan runner in the same race, the slow-starting Banaadeer, who wound up 10th. The Mike de Kock trainee had also turned in a ring-rusty effort in his 2015 Dubai debut. Exquisitely bred, and having flashed talent early on in South Africa, Banaadeer began to show more last Carnival as a 3-year-old versus elders. A year on, he’s eligible to do a lot better, and I’m keeping him on my radar screen.

 

Warning label – there are two horses named Ertijaal: Sheikh Hamdan has another Ertijaal, also a foal of 2011, with grand designs on the Dubai Carnival. The other Ertijaal is an Australian-bred, South African-campaigned son of Hard Spun who captured last year’s Cape Derby (G1) in powerful front-running fashion. Various issues compromised him since, but he’s a real talent in the hands of de Kock. One thing that helps avert confusion is that the two Ertijaals won’t cross paths – the turf sprinter and the router/World Cup prospect have different profiles and objectives.

Maktoum Round 1 clues for Godolphin Mile: Le Bernardin overcame post 11 to win his second straight stakes over this track and trip, after the December 17 Dubai Creek Mile. Interestingly, the 2014 Dubai Creek Mile also yielded the 2015 Maktoum Round 1 winner (Surfer), so let’s promise to remember this in 2017. If Le Bernardin’s name sounds vaguely familiar, you may remember that he won the 2012 Pegasus (G3) for Kiaran McLaughlin.

Because of the outside post, Le Bernardin had to work harder while forcing the pace than in the Dubai Creek Mile, where he bagged the lead on the rail and imposed his will. But there is a significant common denominator: in both cases, he blew the race apart on the far turn and was gone beyond recall in stretch. Here, he understandably tired late and just lasted from the closing trio of Layl, Prayer for Relief, and Faulkner.

Layl, third in the Dubai Creek Mile, moved forward second time off the bench. Yet he broke slowly again. Stablemate Faulkner from the Doug Watson yard was also much better “second up,” checking in three heads back in fourth. Faulkner was a buzz horse early in the 2015 Carnival, when winning his first three career starts, and more tellingly, rallying from well back to defy a prevalent speed bias. After becoming the only horse to beat eventual Godolphin Mile winner Tamarkuz at Meydan last year, Faulkner was sidelined by injury for 11 months. With only five races under his belt, he’s still got upside – if he can stay sound.

Prayer for Relief has had his problems, but the 8-year-old may be rejuvenated for de Kock. Unraced since finishing eighth in the March 28 Godolphin Mile, he was a bang-up third off the layoff in Thursday’s feature. De Kock revealed that the Zayat Stables veteran went unshod for the past year, and only got fitted with shoes on raceday. Prayer for Relief was also disadvantaged by a wide trip, covering the most ground of anyone in the field, according to Trakus. Given his back class as a multiple Grade 2 winner of almost $2 million, a healthy Prayer for Relief can pad that total here.

 

Strike up the band: Watson had reportedly considered One Man Band for the Maktoum Round 1 before keeping him in handicap company. Despite not looking completely relaxed on the front end, he won his third straight, and set his second consecutive track record at Meydan, when finishing about 1 3/16 miles on dirt in 1:57.85. Coming off a lower-level handicap victory in a track-record 1:35.68 for the metric mile, he had a recency edge over comebackers Emirates Flyer and Hunting Ground. Yet One Man Band was also toting the top weight of 130 pounds. Watson confirmed that One Man Band has earned a crack at the February 4 Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2), and he has the earmarks of a progressive type who can stay hot at the Carnival.

 

Sun hasn’t set on Empire: The de Kock-trained Star Empire has run well first up in past Carnivals, but excelled himself by winning his 9-year-old debut off a 9-month holiday. Conceding weight to a decent yardstick in Elleval (fifth in last summer’s Arlington Million [G1]), who was competing at his preferred trip of about 1 1/4 miles on turf, the old stayer rallied from last and wore him down. Star Empire is on course for a fourth consecutive tilt at the about 2-mile Dubai Gold Cup (G2) on World Cup night. Fifth in 2013 and third in 2014, he was second to ill-fated Brown Panther in 2015.

 

Rah-rah for Al Raihe: You might say I’ve buried the lede, since trainer Ali Rashid al Raihe dominated the night. The former U.A.E. champion trainer won all 4 Thoroughbred races that he entered, including the feature with Le Bernardin and the eye-catching Ertijaal. The yard’s other winners were Nawwaar, who benefited from the garden trip stalking two dueling leaders in a dirt sprint handicap, and Ghaamer, who accomplished a tougher task from post 15 when upsetting an about 7-furlong turf handicap. Each flattered their recent conquerors, Muarrab and Forjatt respectively, who have also won in the interim. Muarrab came back to romp in the December 17 Garhoud Sprint at Meydan, while Forjatt just scored at Jebel Ali. Both figure in this Thursday’s entries, with Muarrab in a loaded renewal of the Dubawi S. and Forjatt in a competitive Singspiel on turf.

On tap Thursday: At Monday’s declaration stage, notable names in the Dubawi include past Golden Shaheen (G1) winners Reynaldothewizard and Krypton Factor, the exciting Muarrab, and ex-Americans Indianapolis and Cool Cowboy. The grassy Singspiel could feature Farraaj, Big Baz and Limario as well as Forjatt. And the U.A.E. classics scene warms up with the 2000 Guineas Trial, highlighted by the Godolphin duo of Rouleau and Steady Pace, and the companion 1000 Guineas Trial, pitting Godolphin’s Promising Run and Pure Diamond versus de Kock’s Almashooqa and Watson’s devastating debut winner Polar River.

Ertijaal photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins.