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American comes in from the cold
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - You could call Doug Watson an American trainer based in Dubai, but that wouldn't be quite right. What Watson is - and there is really no one else like him - is a Dubai trainer who happens to be American.
Watson first came to Dubai some 14 years ago, catching on with Satish Seemar, who runs one of the major Dubai-based operations during winter racing here. A native Ohioan, with connections to Chicago, Watson had scant experience of any sort working with horses, but at the time a move to the Arabian Peninsula seemed better than the alternative.
"Someone asked me if I wanted to come over, and it was that or a winter at Turfway," Watson said.
Avoiding the bleak grind of northern Kentucky winter racing was only the tip of Watson's good fortune. After a seven-year stint here as an assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, Watson pinned on his head-trainer stripes for the first time, and he has come out first or second in the Dubai Winter Racing Carnival standings the last four years. Saturday, he has six horses to run on the World Cup card, including three in the Golden Shaheen, the night's dirt sprint race, and Boston Lodge in the Godolphin Mile.
So, for Watson there is no answer to the question of what's different between in training in Dubai and "over there," in the United States. "There is no 'there' for me," he said Monday morning from his office at the Red Stable, which sits adjacent to the Al Quoz training center, which houses the powerful Godolphin string.
A Red Stable visitor chimed in with a further opinion: "There's no difference, anyway," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who had just driven the couple of miles from Nad Al Sheba Racecourse, where he had gotten his first local look at Invasor, one of the World Cup favorites, and was visiting his old haunts.
Red Stable, neat and tidy, has, like all the stable areas in Dubai, a European-style courtyard around which are built horse stalls. Other barns, roofed with palm leaves, sit next to the yard, many of their stalls housing Arabians rather than Thoroughbreds. Watson has two Arabians for the race on World Cup night, a race that McLaughlin himself once won.
"Most of what I learned about training, I learned from him," Watson said, pointing a thumb at McLaughlin.
There was much to learn. Asked what kind of horse experience he brought to his earliest forays into the sport, Watson was blunt: "None."
At Arlington Park, his first racetrack job, he caught on with the Clint Goodrich operation. "They didn't even want me walking hots - I washed buckets," Watson said. "But at the time, [Goodrich] was looking for cheap help, and I was willing to work for nothing."
Watson now has horses for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, whose Shadwell Stable campaigns Invasor, as well as for other members of Dubai's ruling family. The busy part of his year has come to an end, since racing in Dubai basically shuts down from April to August, when stables start gearing up for the next Winter Carnival.
Watson might be little known in the U.S., but this year he has a couple horses who might be good enough for U.S. stakes. Arabian Prince, Watson said, is possible for the Keeneland meet, while another older handicap horse named Shakis is scheduled to wind up in the McLaughlin barn later this year.
Horse of the Year all grown up
Dubai regulars have noted the last several mornings a transformation that McLaughlin has seen unfold over the course of many months, the growth of Invasor from boy to man.
Invasor finished fourth to Discreet Cat last year in the United Arab Emirates Derby, but he was described by those who hadn't seen him since as twice the size of his former self.
"He is, he's completely different," McLaughlin said. "He's bigger, he's stronger. At the UAE Derby, he just wasn't the same horse he is now."
Invasor will carry the colors of Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable in the World Cup, which sets up a somewhat unusual situation of the Shadwell camp being matched against Godolphin, the worldwide operation created by Sheikh Hamdan's brother Sheikh Mohammed, and the owner of Discreet Cat. Godolphin usually sweeps up most top-class horses campaigned by the Maktoum family, but here the brothers are rivals.
"We're all on the same team," McLaughlin explained. "If we don't win, we hope [Discreet Cat] wins, and if he doesn't win, they want us to win. But there is a rivalry there. We want to beat them, and they want to beat us."
Owner not shy in his optimism
There exists the cliche of the brash New Yorker, and Ron Borgese, the owner of Nightmare Affair, is almost apologetic for feeding into it.
"I don't want to come in here sounding like a real jerk, but we're going to win the race," Borgese said.
Well, some American usually does win the Golden Shaheen, and Borgese's optimism comes off more charming than annoying. Still, it is difficult to label "sure thing" a horse who finished fifth last out in the Sunshine Millions Sprint, which came six weeks after a sixth-place finish in the Kenny Noe Handicap at Calder. Things had gone better before those two races: Nightmare Affair was third in the De Francis Dash and third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Borgese, a Long Islander who traveled to Dubai with his father, Ernie, said Nightmare Affair has switched trainers since his last race, and will be saddled Saturday by Gary Marano rather than Manny Azpurua. Marano, Borgese said, was the guy who picked Nightmare Affair out for purchase when the horse was an unraced 2-year-old. Now 6, Nightmare Affair has raced 45 times and earned more than $1.1 million in purses - which isn't bad for the first horse Borgese owned.
Nightmare Affair is one of five American-based horses in the Golden Shaheen. Thor's Echo, the Breeders' Cup Sprint winner who was purchased privately last fall by Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, may still be favored to win in U.S. betting, though he was sixth in his March 1 prep.
* Todd Pletcher changed course and decided not to send English Channel out for a spin under the Nad Al Sheba lights Monday night. English Channel will continue training during the morning.
* All the American-based horses apparently have settled in here without issue, but Lava Man has especially impressed onlookers with his training in recent days. He had a spirited gallop of about 1 1/8 miles on the Nad Al Sheba grass course Monday morning.