03/23/2012 5:52PM

America's interest in Dubai World Cup fading since Meydan's Tapeta track opened

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With shopping malls, ribbons of freeways, and a tumult of skyscrapers, the Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai has long radiated an unusually Western vibe. And for years, the Dubai World Cup racing program felt a lot like a cross-section of America plunked down in the Arabian Desert.

In 2003, a total of 21 U.S.-based horses were shipped to Dubai to run in the seven-figure stakes races on World Cup Night, and as recently as 2008, 14 horses made the trip. But that dynamic has shifted.

American-based horses have found little success since the World Cup moved in 2010 from aging Nad al Sheba to glitzy Meydan, and one year after an 11-horse American contingent took a drubbing, just six horses are scheduled to ship for the eight Thoroughbred races on the March 31 World Cup program. That is the smallest number since 1999, when the World Cup was the only stakes race in Dubai that offered a seven-figure purse.

“You just see less and less Americans going over there,” said trainer Bob Baffert.

Baffert won the third Dubai World Cup in 1998 with Silver Charm and has been a steady participant ever since. He sat out Meydan’s first World Cup Day in 2010, but last year sent Euroears to the Golden Shaheen. Euroears finished second, the only top three placing by an American in 2011, and Baffert is back with a strong two-horse string for 2012, with The Factor slated for the Golden Shaheen and Game On Dude a prime player in the $10 million World Cup.

To Baffert and many others, the reason for decreased American participation is obvious: The switch from dirt racing at Nad al Sheba to synthetic-surface racing at Meydan, where the main track is composed of Tapeta.

“When they had the old dirt track you could always count on your fast horses,” Baffert said. “With synthetic, it just changes the game completely. They either like it or they don’t like it.”

Wins by Cigar (1996) and Silver Charm (1998) in two of the first three editions of the World Cup, and solid performances by several other horses in the event’s first four seasons, encouraged U.S. horsemen to become major supporters when the Emirates Racing Authority began expanding the World Cup card in 2000.

Even a long ship into an unfamiliar climate couldn’t stop American dirt horses from ruling the main-track races at Nad al Sheba. An American horse won the Golden Shaheen, the World Cup night main-track sprint, nine times in the 10 years it was contested at Nad al Sheba. In 2007, American horses finished first, second, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the Golden Shaheen. Kinsale King won the race in 2010, its first year at Meydan, but he was the only American horse in the race, and in 2011, Euroears was the lone American representative. This year, The Factor and Giant Ryan are the only two Americans among an anticipated 12-horse field.

“We used to dominate the sprint race,” said Barry Irwin, the president and CEO of Team Valor Stables. “It’s more of an afterthought now.”
Team Valor has run several horses in World Cup races, but this will be the first year it ships a horse from the U.S. to Dubai. Lucky Chappy will be the rare American participant in the UAE Derby – a race an American horse never has won – and Lucky Chappy is there specifically because Meydan has a synthetic surface.

“I don’t understand why, but he loves the Tapeta,” Irwin said.

Team Valor, though, is one of the few U.S. outfits drawn to Meydan because of the main track. Not a single American horse could be rounded up to start this year in the $1 million Godolphin Mile. In 2003, the year of the 21 Americans, six U.S.-based horses started in the Godolphin Mile. The race used to be a great spot for a second-division American handicap runner to beat up on horses better suited to turf, or local dirt horses of lower quality. Now, not a single capable one-turn miler can be rounded up to compete for a million bucks.

Irwin himself said he was skeptical of Dubai’s switch from dirt to Tapeta.

“I think that made a huge impact,” he said. “I was not really in favor of that at the time because of exactly what has happened. Of the synthetics, I do like the Tapeta the best – we train on it at Fair Hill – but if you look at the top few trainers that have sent the livest horses over there, they specialize on dirt. They’re basically speed trainers.”

Followers of the American scene are well aware that horses that prefer turf generally have a better chance of showing good form on a synthetic surface than they do on dirt, and that, generally, has leveled the international playing field in favor of the rest of the world when it comes to the Dubai World Cup and its companion stakes.

And as for turf racing in the Middle East, Americans have never been much good at that. No U.S.-based horse has ever won one of the World Cup night turf stakes, and much more common are the type of results the Americans produced last year: an 11th and a 12th in the Sheema Classic, and a fifth in the Duty Free. And on March 31, there will be a single American runner – Regally Ready in the Al Quoz Sprint – in the four turf stakes that now reside on the World Cup Night card.

As for Baffert, he was to arrive in Dubai this weekend, several days earlier than most American trainers make the trek. Baffert said he wants to closely monitor Meydan’s Tapeta, gauging when and how fast to work The Factor and Game On Dude. Last year, he let Euroears have a moderate breeze early in the week. This year, he may alter his runners’ schedules, trying to maximize their chances on the unfamiliar surface.

“All I know is you have to take a really good horse there,” he said, “and I’m going with two top, top horses.”

The question is whether, in the new Dubai World Cup era, even that will be enough.