01/08/2012 1:23PM

Is This The Year For Sheikh Mohammed In The Derby?


“One swallow does not a summer make” is an idiom that applies perfectly to 3-year-old stakes races in early January, and their bearing on the Kentucky Derby. Still, you couldn’t blame Sheikh Mohammed if he woke up Sunday morning with the feeling that he has his best chance yet of winning the coveted first leg of the U.S. Triple Crown.

There were two two-turn stakes races for 3-year-olds Saturday at opposite ends of the country, and Sheikh Mohammed won both of them. Out of Bounds, racing for Darley, won the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita. Alpha, under the Godolphin colors, won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct, one race after Darley’s Captivating Lass won the two-turn Busanda for 3-year-old fillies. All three, incidentally, are Darley breds.

Sheikh Mohammed has thrown a ton of money at the Kentucky Derby, in the form of private purchases he hoped would go on to wear the roses, and by creating a race in his country – the U.A.E. Derby – that he hoped would prove a successful springboard to Churchill Downs, and he still hasn’t come close to winning it. Godolphin has had seven starters in the Derby, and Sheikh Mohammed was co-owner of another, and the best finish out of all of them was a sixth by China Visit in 2000.

But if Out of Bounds and Alpha do make it to the Kentucky Derby, and if their prep campaigns do not take an unforeseen detour, then they will represent a change in philosophy for this outfit. One can understand Sheikh Mohammed’s desire to win the Derby his way, with a colt trained and prepped in Dubai, but this process clearly wasn’t coming close to working. If Out of Bounds and Alpha do make the Derby, they would be Sheikh Mohammed’s first Derby starters to have had a conventional U.S. prep campaign.

It’s early – extremely early – but there were some things to like about Out of Bounds and Alpha Saturday. Out of Bounds, coming off a maiden win at Hollywood in his second career start, clearly raised his game in his first attempt around two turns. And Out of Bounds beat the better field, running down the previously unbeaten Secret Circle, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint who had absolutely no excuse in his first try routing, and Longview Drive, who won two minor stakes last year before concluding his season with a third in the Delta Downs Jackpot.

But if Alpha beat the weaker field, he was more impressive visually. Alpha scored by a widening 2 1-2 lengths, showing that he is more the colt who won his debut at Saratoga in runaway fashion and finished second in the Champagne than the one who came unhinged in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.