Mekhtaal has the resume of a highly-regarded type who’s come up shy of the pinnacle so far, but the Arlington Million (G1) could be just the spot for a breakout performance.
Owned by Sheikh Joaan of Qatar’s Al Shaqab Racing, best known for campaigning Treve but also successful with the likes of Mshawish, Ectot, and Sandiva on this side of the pond, Mekhtaal represents an emerging rival to Godolphin and Coolmore on the world stage.
Trainer Jean-Claude Rouget may not be as familiar a name to U.S. racing fans, but he perennially tops the French standings (by number of wins), and his stars include last year’s European champion three-year-old colt Almanzor and current dual classic winner Brametot. Rouget has invaded America in the past, most memorably plundering the 1995 Man o’ War (G1) with Millkom and taking Arlington’s American Derby (G2) the same year with Gold and Steel. Within the past decade, he registered placings in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) with Behkabad and Keeneland’s Queen Elizabeth II (G1) with Zagora, Stacelita was a tough-beat third in the 2011 United Nations (G1), and last fall, Apple Betty was a nose away from giving him his first U.S. graded win in 12 years in the Dowager (G3).
A €300,000 Arqana August yearling, Mekhtaal is a well-bred son of the great Sea the Stars. The flashy chestnut is a half-brother to four stakes performers, led by Group 2 winner Democrate and multiple Grade 3 vixen Aigue Marine (also a course record-setter at about 1 3/8 miles at Delaware). Their dam, the Group 3-winning Silver Hawk mare Aiglonne, is herself a three-quarter sister to Group 1 queen Germance (a past Rouget trainee), from the further family of multiple highweight White Muzzle and 1999 Dubai World Cup (G1) star Almutawakel.
With that pedigree, Mekhtaal promised to thrive with maturity, and he accordingly didn’t make it to the races as a juvenile. He must have shown plenty in his early training, however, to be given a syllabus of fancy entries.
Unveiled in a 1 1/4-mile maiden at Saint-Cloud, Mekhtaal stormed from well off the pace, despite the heavy going, to win snugly as the favorite. Although it’s not wise to over-interpret maiden form at such a long remove, it’s interesting to note that the third-placer was fellow Al Shaqab colorbearer Heshem, who went on to win three straight, including the Prix Eugene Adam (G2). Heshem finished the year with a second in the Prix Dollar (G2), and nearly upset the March 25 Dubai Turf (G1) at big odds.
Mekhtaal’s imperious march to the classics was knocked sideways when he was beaten next time at 3-5 in a Maisons-Laffitte conditions race. That’s not just a metaphor, since he buckled out of the gate, literally lurched starboard, and collided with a rival. Rouget reported that the colt was off kilter the rest of the way, putting into perspective his workmanlike second to a pacesetting winner.
Pressing on to a classic trial in the Prix d’Hocquart (G2), Mekhtaal rebounded as though he’d been stewing in his box for a month over that loss. He secured the early lead and pummeled them senseless in the stretch to romp by six.
His Hocquart display made him one of the top contenders for the French Derby (G1). In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Mekhtaal was the 9-2 second choice, by far the preferred of Rouget’s pair. The other, overlooked at 20-1, was none other than the victorious Almanzor, who became a revelation from this point forward. Mekhtaal, held up at the rear from post 15, never got involved under considerate handling in eighth. It was later reported that the decibel level of the pre-race music rattled him.
Up in trip to about 1 1/2 miles for the Grand Prix de Paris (G1), Mekhtaal was favored to redeem himself. He took up a more tactical position to stalk the pace, eased back a bit, then launched his bid into a contending position in the stretch, but didn’t kick on as strongly as expected. Although tightened up and squeezed back into fourth, Mekhtaal didn’t appear to have enough to be involved in the win picture anyway. The top two, Mont Ormel (now racing in Hong Kong as Helene Charisma) and Red Verdon, have done nothing to advertise the form since. (The third, Cloth of Stars, is a different matter, as mentioned below.)
Mekhtaal cut back to 1 1/4 miles for the Prix du Prince d’Orange (G3), where the betting public retained the faith and sent him off at 8-11. And as he reverted to the front-running tactics that had worked so well in the Hocquart, favorite backers had to be feeling pretty good – until he suddenly had a fight on his hands and couldn’t outduel Sky Kingdom (since exported to Australia, where he was injured after going unplaced twice).
The Prince d’Orange recap on canalturf.com is pretty brutal in its assessment of Mekhtaal, running down the list of his excuses wearing thin. And at that time, as he called it a season and headed into winter quarters, he deserved it.
At four, however, Mekhtaal has begun to make amends. The Rouget yard was hit by equine herpesvirus early in the year, but Mekhtaal recovered readily from his EHV-1 case and showed no ill effects in his comeback.
Reappearing in the April 9 Prix d’Harcourt (G2), Mekhtaal was prominent throughout, struck the front in midstretch, and just got collared by a race-fit Cloth of Stars in the form of his life.
Mekhtaal made the forecast improvement second time out in the Prix d’Ispahan (G1). Shortening up to about nine furlongs for the first time, he wore down longtime leader Robin of Navan to earn a first Group 1 tally.
Needless to say, that edition of the d’Ispahan won’t go down in the annals with, say, the Goldikova vs. Cirrus des Aigles match-up. It was rendered even less informative after favored Zarak was eased.
But Mekhtaal remains capable of better, a tantalizing conclusion reinforced by his sneaky sixth in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) last time out at Royal Ascot. In a race where it paid to be handy, he was restrained off the pace, a tactic that hasn’t suited him since his maiden win. He finished with mild interest for sixth, a neck back of Million rival Scottish, and three lengths astern of Highland Reel in a deep race where Decorated Knight, Ulysses, and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) winner Queen’s Trust rounded out the top four.
Whether it’s being able to make the most efficient use of his cruising speed, or a mental angle of needing to be put into the race early, Mekhtaal is a different horse when on or near the pace. That’s why I think the addition of Frankie Dettori on Saturday could be the key to him. Dettori, as an astute judge of pace, should fit him like the proverbial glove.
“He is much more mature than he was as a three-year-old and behaves much better,” Rouget commented in Thoroughbred Daily News after the d’Ispahan. “He has learnt his game and between nine and 10 furlongs is his best distance.”
Thus Mekhtaal is rekindling the early promise. The question for Million fans is, does he mean to follow through, or is he leading us down the garden path again? If at a square price, it might be worth taking the plunge on his seriousness of purpose.
Photo courtesy of Aga Khan Studs via Twitter