It’s time for the Dubai World Cup Carnival to roll on at Meydan! The next eight Thursdays, along with a couple of Carnival Saturday cards, will set the stage for the March 31 Dubai World Cup extravaganza.

After outlining the prospective international contingent for the Carnival, and previewing Thursday’s opener featuring Thunder Snow, let’s turn to the seven leading storylines.

1. There’s a new voice of racing in Dubai, with Craig Evans taking over the announcer’s booth from fellow Australian Terry Spargo. Perhaps best known internationally for his time as the primary track announcer in Singapore, Evans is active on Twitter as @tropicscaller. He’s had time to get acquainted, since the domestic season in the United Arab Emirates began in early November. Through all of the pre-Carnival races I’ve watched at Meydan, I’d describe his as a more understated style than the oft-colorful Spargo.

2. Doug Watson, the UAE overall champion trainer for the past two years, is already on a tear in the nascent 2017-18 season. A Kiaran McLaughlin protégé, the Ohio-born Watson is leading the standings with 23 wins so far, 13 at Meydan alone. That stat is highlighted by a pair of four-win nights (on the November 23 and December 7 cards), and his recently surpassing the 500-win mark for his UAE career. As you might expect given his American background, Watson excels with dirt horses, although he has a couple of decent turfers as well. He’s got at least three on the Dubai World Cup (G1) trail – last year’s Godolphin Mile (G2) winner Second Summer along with the talented but fragile pair of Faulkner and Candy Boy.

3. Godolphin trainers Saeed bin Suroor and Charlie Appleby could be in a photo-finish atop the Carnival standings again. Bin Suroor edged Appleby 13-11 last year, by Al Adiyat’s tabulation, to earn an eighth training title at the Carnival, while also reaching the historic 200-win milestone as the marquee meet’s all-time top trainer. (Both were clear of Watson, who had six Carnival wins in 2017). Will bin Suroor’s Al Quoz Stables retain bragging rights? Or will Appleby’s Marmoom Stables overtake him? With strength in depth, Godolphin is poised to continue its traditional success at the home base that means so much to its driving force, Sheikh Mohammed. Remember that it’s hazardous to over-interpret Godolphin riding assignments, or who has the “first colors” versus the white or red cap. Bin Suroor and Appleby have a roster of talented jockeys, each perhaps on a certain horse for reasons unknown to a curious public. In other words, if you like a Godolphin horse at the price (or the weights), don’t be put off by trying to read tea leaves about jockeys or colors.

4. The all-star jockey colony, already outstandingly competitive, just got deeper. Richard Mullen nipped previous titleholder Tadgh O’Shea by a 52-50 margin in the overall UAE standings last season. But if you filter the Emirates Racing Authority stats for Meydan alone, Watson’s go-to rider, Pat Dobbs, was the most successful with 15 wins (including non-Carnival cards). According to Al Adiyat, Christophe Soumillon (9 wins) ranked as the top rider of the Carnival per se, and the Belgian ace returns after setting a new European record for wins in a single calendar year. Now the colony has attracted Silvestre de Sousa, fresh from garnering champion jockey honors for the 2017 British Flat season. The Brazilian native is proven over this circuit from his former Godolphin days, ranking among the leading riders here for a few years and ultimately topping the Meydan charts when African Story won the 2014 World Cup. De Sousa returns on a full-time basis after a couple of seasons away, and he’ll make his presence felt. So will veteran international reinsman Gerald Mosse, now on the scene and reportedly affiliated with bin Suroor’s yard.

5. Mike de Kock has fewer horses to go to war with, but a select string at that. The South African trainer had mentioned a while back that there was no point bringing horses who didn’t have the right profile or running style for the speed-friendly dirt. His team is therefore more streamlined, turf-oriented, and of the high caliber you’d expect. Noah from Goa is arguably the best of his Carnival veterans back in action, while Whisky Baron (hosted by de Kock for his trainer, Brett Crawford) and Al Sahem are the most accomplished of his new arrivals. De Kock cautioned on his website that Al Sahem is among those a little behind schedule, only because they’d shipped out later. Whisky Baron, Icy Trial, and Bold Rex had gone out earlier, and thus are “the fittest of the bunch.”

6. Through the first five Meydan cards of the season, it still generally pays to be handy on the dirt, but the closers have landed some blows. Of the 31 dirt races for Thoroughbreds so far, 10 were wire jobs, five were won by pace factors, and 10 went to stalkers/just off the pace types. Yet six rallied from further back to win. While most of those came in lower-level handicaps (and a maiden), deep closer Drafted capitalized on a fast early pace to prevail in a January 4 handicap for horses rated 80-89.

7. The three-year-old fillies’ series could be one for the ages. Halima Hatun and Rayya were jaw-dropping maiden winners on the Meydan dirt in late fall, hinting they’re ready for a class test on the road to the UAE Oaks (G3). While Halima Hatun’s forte is speed – it was positively scary how easily the Ismail Mohammed trainee opened up early on the boys – Rayya shaped as possibly more of a natural router when drawing off versus fellow fillies for Watson. Add in a fascinating character from Godolphin, Thunder Snow’s half-sister Winter Lightning, and you’ve got a potential clash to savor.

The Carnival kicks off Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. (EST), with the first Thoroughbred race at 10:05 a.m. Thunder Snow’s comeback in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2), the biggest prize on the card, is set for 11:50 a.m.