Zarak photo by Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins Photography

Saturday’s $6 million Dubai Turf (G1) is a fascinating puzzle of 13 competitors, most well-matched on paper, and few that can be overlooked. As a result, it has the potential to be the best betting race on the card. 

Since 2000, 12 of 17 Dubai Turf winners had a recent prep. That trend has been more pronounced in recent years; four of those victorious off the layoff were concentrated between 2001-06. Since then, the only winner to make his seasonal reappearance in this race is Cityscape (2012).

Several contenders will try to defy this stat, notably the form choices Ribchester and Mutakayyef, but also Deauville and Long Island Sound (two of Aidan O’Brien’s trio) as well as Mondialiste.

Godolphin’s Ribchester has the additional question of the about nine-furlong distance. The Richard Fahey trainee is stepping up beyond a mile for the first time, and although three past winners were likewise scoring at their first attempt, they presented different cases. Rhythm Band (2000) and Gladiatorus (2009) were race-fit from the Carnival, and the third, the aforementioned Cityscape, started his career in a mile maiden and spent almost all of his time at that trip. Ribchester, on the other hand, was a quick juvenile who broke his maiden in the six-furlong Mill Reef (G2). His pedigree gives hope, but it’s worth pointing out his profile to this point doesn’t match the other winners debuting at this distance.

Mondialiste, the trailer in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) when last seen, has another strike. A nearly unanimous prerequisite was a commendable last start, whether a win or a creditable defeat. Only one winner failed to make the top four in his prior outing, Al Shemali (2010), whose upset remains as inscrutable now as it was then.

Godolphin’s Very Special was likewise a disappointing fifth in her latest in the Balanchine (G2). A moderate pace scenario could help her dictate as she likes on the front end, but you’d have preferred to see her as sharp as she was last Carnival.

Very Special and Balanchine winner Opal Tiara are in line to become the fourth distaffer to win the Dubai Turf. But the others on the honor roll – Terre a Terre (2002), Ipi Tombe (2003) and Sajjhaa (2013) – had already proven themselves capable at the Group 1 level versus males. Very Special wasn’t disgraced when sixth here last year, especially considering the race shape didn’t favor her, but she’s still got it to prove. Opal Tiara beat Group 3 older males last summer, and is in the form of her life at present, but it’s still a big step.

Although Japanese filly Vivlos has yet to try males in a Group 1 race, her even fifth in the Nakayama Kinen (G2) came behind such classy males as Neorealism and multiple Group 1 victor Logotype. Finishing eighth was 2016 Dubai Turf hero Real Steel, who used the same race as his prep last year. In fact, the Nakayama Kinen was also the prep of choice for the scorching Just a Way (2014).

Zarak, who prepped stylishly in the about 1 1/4-mile Dubai Millennium (G3), is cutting back in trip, but that’s worked for seven Dubai Turf winners. Six were shortening up from 1 1/4 miles, while Admire Moon (2007) was more dramatic off a 1 3/8-mile score. Fellow French shipper Heshem is taking a gentler cutback, having been upset in his 1 3/16-mile prep over Chantilly’s Polytrack.

Decorated Knight was a barnstorming winner (despite traffic) of the course-and-distance prep, the Jebel Hatta (G1), which has yielded five Dubai Turf winners. Just two had also won that prep though, the aforementioned mares Ipi Tombe and Sajjhaa. Trainer Roger Charlton, of Cityscape fame, has been forthright that the Jebel Hatta isn’t as deep as this and that Decorated Knight needs to find a few lengths.

Two others were last seen in preps off the beaten path. The third of O’Brien’s runners, Cougar Mountain, was a strong second in Qatar February 24. Singapore’s Horse of the Year Debt Collector finished third at Kranji while giving away 16 pounds to the winner.

My World Cup card selections and preferred longshots will appear in a Friday blog.