2023 Dubai World Cup: Top 10 storylines

March 20th, 2023

From the $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1), to exceptional turf races, contentious dirt events, and a Kentucky Derby (G1) berth on the line in the UAE Derby (G2), Saturday’s extravaganza at Meydan offers a spectacle on a truly global scale.

Here’s my idea of the top 10 storylines surrounding Dubai World Cup night:

1. Frankie Dettori aims for World Cup history aboard Country Grammer.

Defending champion Country Grammer will try to join Thunder Snow (2018-19) as a two-time World Cup winner. But much of the focus will be on jockey Frankie Dettori, who could set a new record of five World Cup wins.

Interest is at a fever pitch since this is Dettori’s final season of riding, and Saturday marks his World Cup swan song. Dettori is currently tied with retired Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, who captured Dubai’s signature race four times. Dettori’s first three victories came in his years with Godolphin, most memorably with the great Dubai Millennium (2000). Teaming up with Country Grammer for the first time in the 2022 World Cup, Dettori drove him to get up late and make it number four, giving Bob Baffert a fourth trophy as well.

Country Grammer is entering his title defense in vaguely similar fashion to Saeed bin Suroor’s Thunder Snow. Both were second in their final tune-ups. While Thunder Snow prepped locally in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1), Country Grammer has come along in the new era of the Saudi Cup (G1). He was a bang-up second off a layoff in 2022, finished strongly to duplicate that result back in Riyadh Feb. 25, and promises to move forward over his preferred trip of about 1 1/4 miles.

2. Algiers bids to complete his transformation into a dirt monster.

It’s an oddity that Godolphin is not represented in the World Cup itself, but the rampant Algiers has more than a whiff of Sheikh Mohammed’s operation about him. Bred and initially raced by Godolphin, Algiers has been a revelation during this year’s Dubai Carnival for the father-and-son team of Simon and Ed Crisford. The Shamardal gelding has looked like an absolute machine bolting up in the Al Maktoum Challenge Rounds 1 and Round 2 (G2).

The elder Crisford was long associated with Godolphin, and Algiers is employing an angle reminiscent of their 2003 World Cup star Moon Ballad, who likewise went straight from Round 2 into the big night. It’s telling that connections resisted the $20 million temptations of Saudi to freshen him for the World Cup.

Nor should it be forgotten that Godolphin is also in the background of World Cup runner Remorse, ironically an erstwhile stablemate of Algiers when both homebreds were with Andre Fabre. The son of Dubawi has been an admirably consistent type for Bhupat Seemar, and he has an under-the-radar vibe.

3. Saudi Cup hero Panthalassa is among eight Japanese in the World Cup.

Fresh off his front-running coup in the Saudi Cup, Panthalassa is one of Japan’s incredible eight World Cup contenders – more than half of the 15-horse field!

Officially, the top-rated horse in the World Cup is Japan Cup (G1) star Vela Azul, but there’s a reason he’d given up dirt and found the grass greener. He had been toiling in the Japanese dirt ranks, where his record was only 2-for-16. Although his turf sojourn may have been the making of him, Vela Azul remains an uncertain proposition in this spot.

Panthalassa is the first to attempt the lucrative Saudi/World Cup double in the same season. The only reigning Saudi Cup winner to advance to World Cup night, Mishriff (2021), reverted to turf and won the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1). Maximum Security (2020) never got the chance once the emerging COVID pandemic forced the cancellation of his World Cup. Saudi-based Emblem Road did not try to follow up on his stunning upset over his home track in 2022, but he’s here now in the wake of his sixth behind Panthalassa in Riyadh.

Four Japanese entrants come off Saudi Cup losses – third Cafe Pharoah, fourth Geoglyph, fifth Crown Pride, and seventh Jun Light Bolt. Note that Crown Pride is proven around Meydan, having won last year’s UAE Derby (G2). If the venue change puts him back in the winner’s circle, Crown Pride would emulate Thunder Snow, the only UAE Derby hero to go on to World Cup glory.

T O Keynes didn’t bother with Saudi again, since he failed to handle the Riyadh surface last year, and he arrives in Dubai as possibly a forgotten horse. Impressive in the 2021 Champions Cup (G1), T O Keynes was a tough-trip fourth behind Jun Light Bolt and Crown Pride in his repeat bid in December. He comes off a runner-up effort to the progressive Ushba Tesoro, who extended his winning streak to four in the Feb. 1 Kawasaki Kinen.

4. Lord North goes for a Dubai Turf three-peat.

Lord North, who put on a dominant display in the 2021 Dubai Turf (G1), shared the spoils with Panthalassa last year. Since Panthalassa is relinquishing his Dubai Turf crown for the World Cup, that leaves five reigning champions who will mount a title defense. Moreover, two past winners are also on the scene in hopes of regaining their titles.

If Lord North can elude a pincer movement in the Dubai Turf, between the multi-pronged might of Godolphin and Japan, he’d join an exclusive club of three-peaters. Two are Arabians, and the only Thoroughbred to accomplish the feat is Vazirabad in the Dubai Gold Cup (G2) (2016-18). Thunder Snow also turned a World Cup night hat trick, but across different races (the aforementioned World Cup and UAE Derby). Adding to the intrigue, Lord North is yet another potentially historic opportunity for Dettori.

Two of the defending champions are from Japan, Shahryar in the Sheema Classic and Bathrat Leon in the Godolphin Mile (G2). Switzerland aims to retain his throne in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), another year older and against a more formidable American squad. Subjectivist, imperious in the 2021 Dubai Gold Cup, hopes to return to winning form in his second start back from a serious tendon injury. Among the Arabians, the Dubai Kahayla Classic includes reigning titleholder First Classs and 2021 champion Deryan.

5. How many races will Japan win?

With representatives in five undercard races along with the World Cup, Japan theoretically could complete a “Pick 6” of sorts, or hit their rivals for six, or whatever metaphor you’d like.

As an indicator of the sheer depth of the Japanese contingent, even their defending champions might find compatriots too tough. Shahryar has to overcome Japan’s Horse of the Year Equinox in the Sheema, plus Hong Kong Vase (G1) heroine Win Marilyn. Bathrat Leon likely has the measure of Lauda Sion in the Godolphin Mile, but Win Carnelian has appeal.

In the Dubai Turf, Vin de Garde just missed in the three-way thriller of 2022, but now faces exciting four-year-olds Do Deuce, Serifos, and Danon Beluga. The prospect of a ferocious pace in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1) should help Red le Zele, second in the past two runnings. Lemon Pop and up-and-coming Remake like that set-up too, although it’s less clear if that would galvanize old Justin. And Japan has five in the UAE Derby, as outlined below.

6. Kentucky Derby ticket(s) on the line in UAE Derby.

Although European and Japan Roads to the Kentucky Derby exist, connections often prefer to test their sophomores’ aptitude at Meydan. The UAE Derby offers a windfall of 100 points to the winner, on the main leaderboard, to guarantee a spot in the Kentucky Derby. The 40-point haul for second could be enough too, depending upon how the stateside preps go.

Cairo could have shades of Mendelssohn, the 2018 UAE Derby romper, for Aidan O’Brien. Not that a similar track-record conquest is in view, but his program has points in common. Japan’s Hopeful (G1) upsetter Dura Erede is joined by winners of three Japan Road events – Perriere, Derma Sotogake, and Continuar – as well as Goraiko, whose fifth in the Hyacinth S. was reminiscent of Crown Pride’s launching pad to Dubai last year. Derma Sotogake and Continuar both took a detour to the Saudi Derby (G3), where they were third and fifth, respectively.

The U.S. interests are Doug O’Neill’s pair of Tall Boy and Ah Jeez, both winners over the track, and Baffert’s Worcester. Tall Boy tuned up with a maiden-breaking win in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3), while Ah Jeez (by Mendelssohn) took a conditions race. Worcester should appreciate the about 1 3/16-mile distance, but the Grade 3-placed maiden won’t be eligible for points given Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs Inc.

7. Sheema: Can Equinox and Rebel’s Romance pick up where they left off?

Equinox and Rebel’s Romance finished 2022 with career-defining victories, and something has to give in this clash of comebackers. While Equinox caught Panthalassa in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) and crushed the Arima Kinen (G1), Rebel’s Romance landed the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) to go 5-for-5 on grass.

Interestingly, both return with possible questions. Equinox’s trainer, Tetsuya Kimura, wasn’t enthused by a recent workout in Japan. Rebel’s Romance missed his intended prep for Charlie Appleby because of leg inflammation.

Also, Rebel’s Romance is trying to become the first reigning Turf winner to capture the Sheema Classic, something that stablemate Yibir couldn’t do last year. Two others have won both, not as a double, but in different seasons. St Nicholas Abbey, the 2013 Sheema winner, had won an earlier Breeders’ Cup Turf (2011). Fantastic Light scored the Sheema first (2000), then a later edition of the Turf (2001).

The headliners have little margin for error in a deep field, including a pair of also-rans from last fall’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) – Westover and Mostahdaf. Westover, the 2022 Irish Derby (G1) hero, has not raced since his creditable sixth in Paris. Mostahdaf turned the page from his subpar Arc to run away with the Neom Turf Cup (G3).

8. How many races will Godolphin win?

The glitzy raceday that showcases Dubai is always a focus for Godolphin. If the royal blue team is missing from the World Cup, it can gain compensation on turf.

Godolphin has quantity and quality in the Dubai Gold Cup, with a four-strong team led by Appleby’s Siskany. Trawlerman is on a rebound mission for John and Thady Gosden, Saeed bin Suroor has the sneaky Passion and Glory, and Appleby has also tossed in Global Storm.

The Dubai Turf also features strength in depth for Godolphin. Appleby’s duo of Nations Pride and Master of the Seas enter in sharp form, and the old class act Real World could be a sleeper for bin Suroor.

In the Sheema, Rebel’s Romance is accompanied by the Andre Fabre-trained Botanik. Fabre also has the operation’s lone hope in the eponymous Godolphin Mile, Egot. The aforementioned Japanese-based Lemon Pop fits in the Golden Shaheen. Conversely, Al Suhail’s appearance in the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) wasn’t Appleby’s original plan, and it smacks of being drafted into service once Creative Force was out.

9. Team USA looks to reassert dominance in Golden Shaheen.

U.S. shippers have historically dominated this dirt sprint, making last year’s win by Switzerland (albeit an American expat) an anomaly. The norm is likely to be restored on Saturday, especially since the form of champion Elite Power looms large through Gunite and C Z Rocket. Each has played second fiddle to Elite Power, C Z Rocket in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) and Gunite more recently in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3). With Baffert’s Hopkins, Sibelius, and South American import Super Ocho, there’s serious speed on tap.

Americans had found the turf dash, the Al Quoz Sprint, a harder puzzle to solve until recent years. Brendan Walsh’s Extravagant Kid scored the breakthrough in 2021, and Cazadero flies the flag this year.

10. Can Hong Kong or Australia recapture Al Quoz Sprint glory?

It’s been a while since Hong Kong or Australian sprinters have starred in the Al Quoz, but to be fair, this is their first year to try since the pandemic. Each jurisdiction has won twice. While the Oz winners came at the former five-furlong trip, Ortensia (2012) and Buffering (2016), Hong Kong has scored at both distances, courtesy of Joy and Fun (2010) and pure speedball Amber Sky (2014).

Of the Hong Kong shippers, Sight Success has the better resume, especially his second in the Hong Kong Sprint (G1). Duke Wai has not performed up to the same level; on the other hand, the about six-furlong trip down the Meydan straightaway could play more to strengths.

Australia’s The Astrologist is a notch below the best at home, but given the ferocious depth of that sprint scene, it could be enough here. Indeed, his form in similar conditions at Flemington suggests he stacks up versus the locals and Europeans, including the streaking Al Dasim, who is still just a three-year-old taking on elders.