03/24/2008 11:00PM

Asiatic Boy bit of an enigma

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Andrew Watkins
Asiatic Boy, with exercise rider Kevin Shea on Monday, needs to improve to challenge Curlin.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - When Asiatic Boy waltzed to a 9 1/2-length victory one year ago in the UAE Derby, his fourth straight blowout victory last winter in Dubai, it was easy to flip the calendar forward: This looked like a horse good enough to win the Dubai World Cup in 2008.

"That was always in our minds," conceded Mike de Kock, Asiatic Boy's trainer.

Asiatic Boy has indeed made it to the big race, but he starts in the $6 million World Cup here on Saturday night - one of 13 likely starters for the race - confronted with two major issues.

The first is Curlin, who might be too good for even a tip-top Asiatic Boy. The second is a disturbingly modest performance in his prep race for the Dubai World Cup. Expected to cruise to victory in the Group 3 Burj Nahaar on March 6, Asiatic Boy took a step in the wrong direction, flattening out in the race's final furlong to finish third of 14. It was not an abysmal effort, but it was not the right kind of race from the horse many anticipated could give Curlin his stiffest challenge here.

"There's no doubt," de Kock said. "He ran below his rating there."

The odd thing is that Asiatic Boy had looked so good winning his first start this year in Dubai, the Al Shindagha Sprint on Jan. 24. At six furlongs, the race was well short of Asiatic Boy's best distance, but he slalomed through traffic that evening and drew clear late to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Based on that race, and the glittering impression Asiatic Boy had made here a year ago, he should have won the Burj Nahaar with speed to spare.

"He's not a problematic horse in any way, so I can't put it down to anything," said de Kock. "It's the first time I haven't seen that kick he has at Nad Al Sheba. It's not as if he didn't come back and eat up, or he came back lame or anything. It's the kind of thing that if you keep thinking about it, it can drive you to tear your hair out."

De Kock has much to ponder beyond Asiatic Boy's surprising loss. South Africa's leading trainer set up a Dubai string several years ago, and has made a roaring success. He has not only Asiatic Boy for the World Cup, but a horse named Lucky Boy, too, and he is the only trainer other than Godolphin's Saeed bin Suroor with at least one entry in all six Thoroughbred races here Saturday.

Oracle West finished second in the 2007 Sheema Classic, and is back for another try; stablemate Sun Classique joins him in that 12-furlong turf race. De Kock also sends out longshot Archipenko in the Dubai Duty Free, Brave Tin Soldier in the Godolphin Mile, and Narc in the Golden Shaheen. And he has the two favorites for this year's UAE Derby in Honour Devil and Royal Vintage.

De Kock's pair for the UAE Derby are both nice horses, but neither has looked as brilliant as Asiatic Boy did last season. Purchased out of Argentina by Sheikh Mohd bin Khalifa al Maktoum, Asiatic Boy has won 5 of his 7 dirt starts. Taken to England after the Dubai season ended last year, Asiatic Boy finished a close fourth behind Ramonti in the Group 1 Sussex Stakes before checking in a well-beaten fifth in the Juddmonte International. Turf may not be Asiatic Boy's best game, but the solid turf he found in the Sussex was much more suitable than the softer going in the Juddmonte.

"More than anything else, he loves it as firm as possible," said de Kock. "If there's any cut in the ground, he's in trouble."

There will be no give in Nad Al Sheba's dirt course Saturday night, but the question is, which Asiatic Boy will show up? And even de Kock wonders if Asiatic Boy at his best can stick with Curlin, who has bowled over pretty much anyone who has seen him in Dubai. Had things gone as planned with Asiatic Boy, a case might be more easily made for an upset.

"It knocks your confidence a bit," de Kock said, "but you can't give up hope in a horse with just one run. I suppose they're entitled to an off day."

To live up to his promise, Asiatic Boy will have to turn it on again Saturday.