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By any name, Viva Pataca looks best in Sheema
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - When a horse is imported to Hong Kong, the owner is liable to change the animal's name. For instance, a gelding who raced under the name Comic Strip during 2004 and 2005 in England became Viva Pataca when he wound up in Hong Kong in 2006. Saturday at Nad Al Sheba, in the Sheema Classic, four other words apply: The horse to beat.
The Sheema Classic, contested over 2,400 meters (about 1 1/2 miles) on turf, drew a power-packed field of 16, but Viva Pataca looks best, despite a somewhat unfortunate draw in post 12. A winner of five Group 1 races and more than $5.5 million, Viva Pataca exits one of the best races of his career, a 2 3/4-length thrashing of high-quality stablemates Floral Pegasus and Bullish Luck in the Feb. 24 Hong Kong Gold Cup. In December, he came within a half-length of Ramonti, among the world's best horses in 2007. Both those recent races came over 1 1/4 miles, and between them Viva Pataca ran third over a mile. At the Sheema Classic distance, Viva Pataca is 2 for 2.
"He's good over 1,600 meters, but he needs 2,200 to be his best," said George Moore, the son of and overseas assistant to trainer John Moore. "He just is getting going at the 1,600."
What Viva Pataca has not done is travel. He has raced strictly in Hong Kong since leaving England, and the Sheema Classic will mark his first attempt on the road. Moore, though, was pleased with the way Viva Pataca shipped and trained this week.
"He's a mature horse," he said, "and everything looks good right now."
Doctor Dino, the polar opposite of Viva Pataca in terms of travel, fared even worse at the draw, and will break from post 15, though horses have won this race before from an outside stall. In December, Doctor Dino won the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase in his first start at 1 1/2 miles.
Youmzain makes his first start since the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, where he was a head away from winner Dylan Thomas at odds of 80-1. Third in this race last year, Youmzain tends to drop back and make one run.
"He needs it all to fall right for him," trainer Mick Channon said.
Quijano, West Wind, and Oracle West also are capable. Better Talk Now carries the best American hope.
UAE Derby: De Kock duo dangerous
Handicapping the $2 million UAE Derby has historically been an exercise in simplicity: Pick either trainer Saeed bin Suroor or Mike de Kock, and you have your winner.
The stranglehold bin Suroor and de Kock have put on the race should hold for another year, but the problem is deciding which one of their horses to back. De Kock's two for the UAE Derby look better this year than bin Suroor's three, though the bin Suroor-trained Godolphin filly Cocoa Beach may turn out to be special. Not to be wholly ignored is the U.S. shipper Massive Drama, who may appreciate a return to dirt after four synthetic-track starts, but is suspect over the UAE Derby's nine-furlong distance.
Moreover, Massive Drama faces the same disadvantage of any UAE Derby horse bred in the Northern Hemisphere: He is running against horses bred on Southern Hemisphere time that are significantly older.
That includes de Kock's pair of Honour Devil and Royal Vintage, who traded decisions earlier this winter at Nad Al Sheba. Honour Devil won the Feb. 14 UAE 2000 Guineas, with Royal Vintage second, but it was Royal Vintage home by a head over Honour Devil in the March 6 Al Bastakiya.
De Kock said he feels Royal Vintage may be the stronger long-term prospect, but Honour Devil could be more the horse of the moment.
"Royal Vintage, he's not as mature, not as forward, not as hearty as the other horse," de Kock said. "I think the other horse is very, very competitive when you put him on the track."
The Godolphin-owned Numaany finished third to the de Kock pair on March 6, but may move forward Saturday. My Indy skipped the Al Bastakiya after a third in the UAE Guineas, and Cocoa Beach moves up in class after easy wins over suspect competition in a pair of filly races here this winter.
Golden Shaheen: Diabolical formidable
The last major U.S. sprinter Godolphin bought for the $2 million Golden Shaheen, Thor's Echo, flopped in the six-furlong straight-course sprint last year. But a more recent import, Diabolical, looks good in this year's edition of the race.
Diabolical, purchased by Godolphin after he won the Grade 2 Vanderbilt at Saratoga last summer, stumbled badly at the start of his Dubai debut and finished fourth here in January. But he was highly impressive rallying while wide to win the March 6 Mahab al Shimaal by 4 1/2 lengths.
"He's got a good chance," said jockey Frankie Dettori, "but it depends on what the Americans have to offer."
Indeed, U.S. shippers are working on a four-race win streak in the Golden Shaheen, which helps explain why there are six of them in Saturday's 15-horse field. The best of the bunch probably are Idiot Proof and Benny the Bull. Second in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Sprint, Idiot Proof adds blinkers after odds-on losses in his first two starts of 2008. Benny the Bull, fourth in the mud at Monmouth, has turned in back-to-back peak efforts, with easy wins in the De Francis Dash and the Sunshine Millions Sprint.
Godolphin Mile: Diamond Stripes can rebound
Trainer Rick Dutrow has never started a horse on the World Cup program, but his first two runners in Dubai both look live. Benny the Bull could be favored in the Golden Shaheen, and Diamond Stripes appears to hold a class edge in the $1 million Godolphin Mile.
Some will question Diamond Stripes's recent form, but he had excuses for bad losses in two of his last three starts. Diamond Stripes was overmatched and seemed to struggle over Monmouth's mud when beaten a mile in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and he clearly did not run his race when he finished fourth in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita last time out, Diamond Stripes's first start on a synthetic racing surface.
Back on dirt, Diamond Stripes has a great chance, perhaps at square odds, since the Godolphin pair of Elusive Warning and Blackat Blackitten, contenders both, should receive plenty of support.