Dubai World Cup winners in Breeders’ Cup Classic: Close, but no cigar

October 17th, 2023

The relationship between the Dubai World Cup (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) was forged early on, with a pattern set by Hall of Famer Cigar

Arriving in Dubai as the reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Cigar captured the inaugural World Cup in 1996. But by the end of his campaign, when trying to defend his Breeders’ Cup title, he was narrowly defeated by Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in a three-way slog to the wire at Woodbine.

Cigar’s loss proved to be a foreshadowing of how other Dubai World Cup winners have fared in the Classic later that same year. You might describe their efforts as often close, but no cigar.

The 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic is a particularly noteworthy example. The two who fought out the World Cup finish – Silver Charm and Swain – again grappled down the stretch at Churchill Downs, only to succumb to the late swoop of Awesome Again in an epic edition.

In 1999, Almutawakel became the first foreign-based World Cup winner to attempt the Classic. The Saeed bin Suroor trainee was only fifth behind Cat Thief at Gulfstream Park. 

Yet Almutawakel is a bit of an outlier on this list. A surprising winner in Dubai, he lost his ensuing starts, including his two stateside Breeders’ Cup preps. Although he nearly won his U.S. debut, just missing in a Woodward (G1) photo, Almutawakel regressed to a well-beaten third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). 

The more typical pattern resumes with the 2004 Dubai World Cup hero, Pleasantly Perfect. Like Cigar, Pleasantly Perfect had won the preceding fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. When bidding for a repeat at Lone Star Park, he could get no nearer than third to Hall of Famer Ghostzapper, who wired the 1 1/4-mile prize in a dazzling 1:59.02.

Hall of Famer Curlin is the next case study. The 2007 Classic star added the 2008 Dubai World Cup to his resume, but finished fourth in his Breeders’ Cup title defense at Santa Anita. That result deserves a pretty large asterisk, however, because it came on the old synthetic track that didn’t suit Curlin. Had the 2008 Classic been contested on dirt, Curlin would have much more formidable to dethrone.

California Chrome was a resounding Dubai World Cup winner who rode a six-race winning streak into the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic. He looked like making it seven for most of the way at Santa Anita, and it took a herculean effort by another Hall of Famer, Arrogate, to run him down.

Arrogate went on to follow the paradigm of reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic winners scoring a victory in Dubai, emulating Cigar, Pleasantly Perfect, Curlin, and Invasor, who turned the Classic/World Cup double in 2006-07. Invasor didn’t have another Breeders’ Cup opportunity, since he retired due to injury that summer.

Unfortunately, Arrogate lost his luster upon returning from Dubai. A poor fourth in the 2017 San Diego H. (G2), he was a better second in the Pacific Classic (G1), but ended his career with an anticlimactic, dead-heat fifth behind Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup

Gun Runner was nevertheless an advertisement for the World Cup. His runner-up effort to Arrogate in Dubai was the only loss during his Horse of the Year campaign.

The most recent Dubai World Cup victor to try the Classic, Thunder Snow (2018), reverted to the more usual tendency to place. Trained like Almutawakel by bin Suroor, the Godolphin homebred boasted a much stronger overall resume, and accordingly performed better in the Breeders’ Cup. 

Thunder Snow had one stateside prep, a neck second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and he finished a respectable third to Accelerate in the Classic at Churchill Downs. Indeed, it renewed the what-ifs that endured from his 2017 Kentucky Derby (G1) appearance, when he bucked on an unfamiliar wet-fast surface and had to be pulled up. After his happier experience in the Breeders’ Cup, Thunder Snow returned to Dubai and made history as the first two-time World Cup winner. 

Dubai World Cup winners in the Breeders’ Cup Classic
Silver Charm
Pleasantly Perfect
California Chrome
5th (DH)
Thunder Snow

To sum up, Dubai World Cup winners are 0-for-8 when contesting that fall’s Classic. Yet five placed, making for a 62.5% in-the-money rate, and three of those went awfully close. 

Moreover, the three who failed to crack the trifecta were arguably the weakest links in the chain, for varying reasons. Almutawakel doesn’t rank as a particularly memorable Dubai World Cup winner, Curlin was nowhere near the same horse on synthetic, and Arrogate wasn’t the same horse at all.

Will Ushba Tesoro score a breakthrough?

So what does this portend for the 2023 Dubai World Cup victor, Ushba Tesoro? With his stellar record on dirt, and recent prep win at home, he fits the mold of World Cup winners who ran well in the Classic. 

But what about the negative stats regarding Japanese-based runners in this race? Their five previous Classic attempts have been forgettable. The best results were a pair of sixths, courtesy of Personal Rush in 2004 and Taiki Blizzard in 1997, after he was 13th in 1996. Casino Drive was a disappointing 12th in 2008, and Espoir City wound up 10th behind Blame and Zenyatta in 2010.

On the plus side, Ushba Tesoro’s resume outstrips those past Japanese hopefuls. Espoir City was a multiple Grade 1 winner on the dirt in Japan, but he was untested on the world stage, or at 1 1/4 miles, before finding himself in an historic renewal of the Classic. Casino Drive, the promising Peter Pan (G2) winner, was an inexperienced three-year-old thrown into the deep end. Personal Rush was also a sophomore, and Taiki Blizzard was a high-class turf horse.

Ushba Tesoro’s World Cup victory on dirt is further evidence of how far Japan’s bloodstock industry has come in recent years. Hence he’s likely to bolster the record of Dubai World Cup winners in the Breeders’ Cup – and maybe even score a doubly historic breakthrough by winning for Japan at the same time.