Epicharis and Adirato photo copyright Japan Racing Association
For the first dozen runnings, the $2 million UAE Derby (G2) was the private preserve of Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor or South African maestro Mike de Kock. The past five years have been much more open, however, and given the intriguing field of 16 assembled for Saturday, the new trend may take firmer hold.
Bin Suroor won the first three editions in a row, and seven overall, but none since 2011. He has a solid chance of regaining the crown with morning-line favorite Thunder Snow, the Criterium International (G1) hero who hacked up in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3). Yet only three UAE Derby winners have come here straight from the Guineas – bin Suroor’s Essence of Dubai (2002) and de Kock’s Regal Ransom (2009) and Musir (2000). That’s something to keep in mind for the Doug Watson-trained Bee Jersey as well, the Guineas runner-up, who hasn’t raced in the interim either.
Bin Suroor’s other runner, Top Score, won the Meydan Classic in his latest, and no graduate of that turf race has gone on to take the UAE Derby. That could also be regarded as a knock on Godolphin’s Fly at Dawn, the Meydan Classic runner-up, but with a proviso. The Charlie Appleby pupil previously scored in the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial on dirt, only to miss the Guineas after banging his head and chipping a tooth. In other words, Fly at Dawn isn’t the typical Meydan Classic runner.
De Kock, who took five of the first 12 runnings, added a sixth courtesy of Mubtaahij (2015). After his quintet of Southern Hemisphere-bred winners, Mubtaahij was his first Northern Hemisphere-bred hero, like current hope Fawree. In other respects, though, Fawree is completely different because he was too raw, and mentally immature, to contest the Guineas. De Kock instead kept him for the middle jewel of the UAE Triple Crown, the Al Bastakiya, where he relapsed into bad old gate issues and lost the rider at the break. After sessions with South Africa’s “horse whisperer” Malan du Toit, Fawree is reportedly a cool, calm, and collected character.
The obvious concern is that even if he’s conquered his aversion to the gate, Fawree has lacked the seasoning, and the toughening up, that would have benefited him in this bulky field. De Kock is adamant that the talent is there, if he can overcome inexperience – and not really having a race at all in the Al Bastakiya.
Another trend isn’t helpful for Fawree: five UAE Derby winners last raced in the Al Bastakiya, but all had previously contested the Guineas too. Qualifiers on that score are the top two from the Al Bastakiya, Watson’s Cosmo Charlie and Marco Botti’s Qatar Man, both unplaced to Thunder Snow in the Guineas.
Aidan O’Brien was the first trainer to break the de Kock/bin Suroor duopoly, but it took the switch to Meydan’s Tapeta to accomplish it. Lancaster Bomber fits the mold of his past winners Daddy Long Legs (2012) and Lines of Battle (2013), in that he competed in the Breeders’ Cup. He actually performed much better as the runner-up in the BC Juvenile Turf (G1), compared to Lines of Battle’s seventh (albeit after a wide trip from post 14) and Daddy Long Legs’ flop in the BC Juvenile (G1) on dirt. But Meydan being dirt now, there’s no telling whether a War Front half-brother to star European miler Excelebration will cope. O’Brien’s other representative, Killavullan (G3) runner-up Spirit of Valor, is set a tough international challenge in only his fourth lifetime start and second stakes appearance.
O’Brien nearly won three straight, but his 2011 contender, Master of Hounds, was just nipped by bin Suroor’s filly Khawlah. She remains the only female UAE Derby winner, fittingly emerging from a Dubai Carnival highlighted by outstanding fillies. This year, the local fillies haven’t been so impressive, making UAE Oaks (G3) winner Nomorerichblondes and second Midnight Chica unlikely emulators of Khawlah.
Japan got on the board last year with Lani, and unbeaten Epicharis is well credentialed to make it two straight. Coming out of the same prep as Lani did, the Hyacinth S. at Tokyo, he won whereas Lani had only been fifth. Hyacinth runner-up Adirato gives Japan another shot, and hopes that the “Hyacinth loser” angle works again.
There still has not been a U.S.-trained winner, largely because our premier three-year-olds are taking more traditional roads to their overriding goal, the Kentucky Derby (G1). But Todd Pletcher’s Master Plan isn’t the usual American sophomore who’s chased the cash in this spot. Indeed, his placement here may well be influenced by his international-minded co-owners, Al Shaqab Racing and China Horse Club (in partnership with WinStar Farm). According to Al Shaqab’s U.S. racing manager, Bradley Weisbord, Master Plan could run himself into Belmont S. (G1) calculations. And he brings a gaudy formline with stablemate Tapwrit, having finished second to the eventual Tampa Bay Derby (G2) record-setter two starts back.
Brazilian-bred Vettori Kin could also furnish a first U.S. trained winner, since he’s now with Ken McPeek. But the only Southern Hemisphere-breds to win this race have all been trained by de Kock, who had the luxury of plenty of acclimation time. Both Vettori Kin and Argentine import He Runs Away ran through the end of last year, and they’d have to set a new precedent to win as recently arrived Southern Hemisphere-breds. It also doesn’t help that they’re giving weight to a few above average-looking Northern Hemisphere-breds.
My World Cup card selections and preferred longshots will appear in a Friday blog.