2024 Dubai World Cup: Top 10 storylines

March 25th, 2024

Five reigning titleholders are back to defend their crowns on Saturday’s Dubai World Cup (G1) program, and three other past winners seek a return to glory on the blockbuster night at Meydan. 

While the $12 million World Cup furnishes several compelling storylines, the lucrative turf events feature a few with gilt-edged formlines through Equinox, and the UAE Derby (G2) could produce its best Kentucky Derby (G1) contender yet.

Here are my top 10 storylines for the World Cup card:

1. Ushba Tesoro bids for a World Cup repeat.

Japan’s Ushba Tesoro will try to join Godolphin’s Thunder Snow (2018-19) as the only two-time World Cup winners. Unlike the handy Thunder Snow, whose tactical speed was an asset, Ushba Tesoro is a closer who capitalized on a hot pace here last year

Similarly, the fast tempo in the recent Saudi Cup (G1) enabled him to rally furiously and miss by a head, around a one-turn configuration that otherwise wouldn’t have suited him. The race shape might be rather different, and less congenial, this time. The expected pacesetter is Laurel River - remember him, the 2022 Pat O'Brien (G2) winner who was scratched from that fall's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1)? Now with Bhupat Seemar, the Juddmonte homebred is taking his chance because of the apparently favorable pace map. 

2. Derma Sotogake hopes to add the World Cup to his UAE Derby trophy.

Japanese compatriot Derma Sotogake hopes to follow another Thunder Snow precedent. Thunder Snow is the only UAE Derby winner to go on to capture the World Cup as an older horse. 

Derma Sotogake’s stunning victory in the 2023 UAE Derby, and runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), make him a prime contender in his return to Meydan. Note that he’s on a similar path this term. Third in last year’s Saudi Derby (G3) in his tune-up for Dubai, he now exits a fifth in the Saudi Cup, and promises an analogous move forward.

3. Senor Buscador goes for the first Saudi Cup/World Cup double.

No horse has won both the Saudi and World Cups, but that factoid warrants a few asterisks and qualifiers. The 2023 Saudi hero, Panthalassa, was the first one to go for the double. His front-running caper didn’t work as well on the stretch-out to about 1 1/4 miles at Meydan, and Panthalassa capitulated to 10th in the World Cup. Deep-closing Senor Buscador is an entirely different type. Yet the Saudi Cup’s one turn played to his strengths, and the World Cup’s conditions probably won’t, judging by Senor Buscador’s losses at this distance stateside. 

4. Newgate aims to give Baffert a fifth World Cup.

Aside from Godolphin’s Saeed bin Suroor, who holds the record of nine World Cup wins, only one other trainer has multiple trophies – four-time World Cup winner Bob Baffert. He now aims for number five with Newgate, wheeling back from his new career high in the March 3 Santa Anita H. (G1). But Baffert’s victorious quartet all had more space between starts. Silver Charm was exiting a Strub (G2) romp on Feb. 7, 1998; Captain Steve captured the Donn H. (G1) on Feb. 3, 2001; Arrogate flew in the Donn’s successor, the Pegasus World Cup (G1), on Jan. 28, 2017; and Country Grammer just missed in the Saudi Cup on Feb. 26, 2022. 

5. California Chrome’s Kabirkhan could emulate his sire in the World Cup.

So far there’s been just one father/son duo to win the World Cup, Singspiel (1997) and Moon Ballad (2003), from the old days at Nad al Sheba. That could change if win machine Kabirkhan, the spitting image of sire California Chrome, continues his dizzying ascent at Meydan. California Chrome starred in the 2016 World Cup during his Hall of Fame career, and Kabirkhan appears to have inherited a fair bit of his ability along with his looks. 

Representing owners from Kazakhstan, where the Kentucky-bred rolled in his first three starts before a series of conquests in Russia, Kabirkhan has become a Dubai Carnival sensation. His resounding score in the Feb. 26 Al Maktoum Challenge (G1) moved his career mark to 10-for-11, and stamped himself as the leading local player.

6. Japan’s Forever Young looks to clinch a Kentucky Derby spot.

This year’s UAE Derby has added buzz courtesy of unbeaten Japanese shipper Forever Young, who recently closed as a 12-1 chance in Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Trained by international maestro Yoshito Yahagi, Forever Young looked to be spinning his wheels well back in the Saudi Derby, but he struck top gear to mug Book’em Danno in stakes-record time

That one-turn mile would arguably have been a more challenging task than about 1 3/16 miles here, and the UAE Derby has been a happy hunting ground for Japan. If Forever Young can overcome post 13 on Saturday, he’ll likely head to Churchill Downs as one of the leading players. One of his more interesting rivals is the Christophe Clement-trained Pandagate, by Hall of Famer and 2017 Dubai World Cup star Arrogate. 

7. Auguste Rodin versus the Equinox proxies in the Sheema Classic.

Auguste Rodin is trying to become the first reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) hero to win the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1), but that might not be his toughest obstacle. Five of his entrants sport collateral form with the now-retired Equinox, the world’s top-ranked racehorse of 2023, who smashed the course record in last year’s Sheema. Auguste Rodin never met Equinox on the racecourse, so the Sheema could be interpreted as a test by proxy. 

Chief among those representing Equinox, so to speak, is Liberty Island, runner-up in the Japan Cup (G1) after her stunning sweep of Japan’s Fillies’ Triple Crown. Others with the Equinox angle are Japan Cup third Stars on Earth; Justin Palace, notably second in Equinox’s record-shattering Tenno Sho Autumn (G1); 2022 Sheema victor Shahryar and Godolphin’s Rebel’s Romance, the respective fifth and seventh here a year ago. Remember that Rebel’s Romance, the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, also captured the 2021 UAE Derby. 

8. Lord North goes for a fourth straight Dubai Turf.

Already an unprecedented three-peater in the Dubai Turf (G1), Lord North could further his living legend status at Meydan with a fourth laurel on World Cup night. The John and Thady Gosden veteran has again prepped in the Winter Derby (G3), although in different conditions since the feature was transferred to Southwell and lengthened to about 1 3/8 miles. In the circumstances, he did well to finish a close second. 

But there’s no shortage of serious dangers to his crown, from Japan’s Do Deuce and Danon Beluga (an unlucky runner-up to Lord North last year) and Hong Kong’s Voyage Bubble (with placings to superstars Golden Sixty and Romantic Warrior) to Godolphin’s rapidly progressive Measured Time and Lord North’s own stablemate Nashwa.

9. Defending champ Sibelius spearheads U.S. hopes in the Golden Shaheen.

From its Nad al Sheba origins, and now in Meydan’s dirt era, the Golden Shaheen (G1) has often showcased the speed of American sprinters. Sibelius continued the trend last year, yet he just scraped home under a fortuitous Ryan Moore ride, and he faces another set of compatriots in his title defense. Baffert’s Hopkins, a rather inexperienced fourth in 2023, could be more streetwise in the rematch, while Run Classic brings an upwardly mobile profile, and Bold Journey and Nakatomi have strong form in the book.

The companion race on turf, the Al Quoz Sprint (G1), has historically been a tougher spot for the U.S. shippers, but they’d been knocking on the door until Extravagant Kid broke through in 2021. Casa Creed wasn’t beaten far when fifth here in 2022, and with an absolute ton of speed in the line-up, the Bill Mott veteran could receive a set-up that plays more into his hands. Defending Al Quoz winner Danyah, who paid $139.40 for his shock a year ago, enters in better form, but he’s trying to become the first to win back-to-back editions. 

10. Saudi Crown shortens up for the Godolphin Mile.

In the about nine-furlong Saudi Cup, Saudi Crown ran his pace rivals off their feet, only to suffer the heartbreak of getting caught late by Senor Buscador and Ushba Tesoro. Trainer Brad Cox wisely opts to cut back in trip, rather than taking them on again going longer in the World Cup. Unless Saudi Crown regresses from that tough beat just a month ago, he has the class edge over defending champ Isolate, who faded to sixth in the Saudi Cup.

The fields have all been set, but post positions for the final four races - the Golden Shaheen, Dubai Turf, Sheema Classic, and Dubai World Cup - will not be drawn until Wednesday. Stay tuned for more coverage as the week progresses.