03/24/2016 9:56AM

California Chrome leads imposing U.S. contingent in Dubai World Cup

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Neville Hopwood
California Chrome trains this week in Dubai. On Saturday, he will try to improve on his second-place finish in last year's Dubai World Cup.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Somewhere on a farm in England early Saturday evening, Prince Bishop will be munching on grass or maybe staring blankly at a fence post, oblivious to the one-year anniversary of the Dubai World Cup bedlam he stirred.

In 2015, the World Cup went back to dirt for the first time in six years. The switch from the original Tapeta Footings surface at Meydan Racecourse was made, it was widely assumed, to lure back elite American runners who mainly had been staying home – runners like California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year.

So, last year Chrome came, Chrome saw, and Chrome lost, clipped in the homestretch by Prince Bishop, an 8-year-old gelding with one previous Group 1 win from 27 starts. No one has yet quite figured out how that happened, and Prince Bishop played no encore and was retired after his moment.

 

But California Chrome is back, “bigger and stronger this year,” the mantra his connections have intoned the last several weeks, and reasonably so. Last year, there was only one other American, Lea, but this edition includes Frosted, Mshawish, Keen Ice, and Hoppertunity, all Grade 1 dirt winners, and it’s a near certainty that an American wins the $10 million Dubai World Cup again – isn’t it?

The others are Gun Pit from Hong Kong; the locally trained Mubtaahij, Special Fighter, and Candy Boy; Vadamos from France; Hokko Tarumae from Japan; and Teletext from Saudi Arabia.

The race, at about 1 1/4 miles, is the last of nine on a card that starts at 7:45 a.m. Eastern with the $1 million Kahayla Classic for purebred Arabians. The other eight races, all with a purse of $1 million or more, include four Group 1 races, with two $6 million grass races – the Dubai Turf and the Sheema Classic – leading into the World Cup, which has a post time of 1 p.m. The skies should be clear, the temperature about 75.

The Dubai World Cup and its undercard can be seen and bet at drfbets.com.

California Chrome and the Godolphin-owned Frosted, the first and second choices in World Cup betting, were the first two Americans here, getting to Dubai in January. California Chrome settled into the quarantine facility at Meydan, while Frosted went to the Marmoom training center, which houses many of the Dubai-based horses owned by Godolphin.

Frosted raced first, pressing a slow pace under his new jockey, William Buick – a retained rider for Godolphin – and galloping to a five-length win Feb. 4 in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin had considered racing Frosted twice before the World Cup but instead decided to train the horse into Saturday’s race.

Frosted’s Grade 1 win came in the Wood Memorial, but his fastest race probably was the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, won by two lengths over Iron Fist. Frosted was fourth in the Kentucky Derby after racing far from the pace, second in the Belmont, second in the Jim Dandy, and third after dueling with American Pharoah in the Travers. He’ll need the best race of his life to win the World Cup, and McLaughlin believes Frosted can bring it.

“If he repeats his last race, it might be enough, but yes, he’s probably ready to run like that,” McLaughlin said.

California Chrome is the rare Kentucky Derby winner still racing at age 5, but his 4-year-old season mainly was lost, and with an unfashionable pedigree, he was brought back into training last fall following a long break at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky, which had bought a share in the horse last summer and will stand him at stud. The World Cup would be his most important win since the 2014 Preakness, burnishing both reputation and stallion credentials.

Everything California Chrome has done since he returned to training last year came with an eye toward the World Cup. He had a comeback race Jan. 9, easily winning a slow-paced edition of the Grade 2 San Pasqual in a slow time. Here in Dubai, he was given a comfortable World Cup prep against inferior rivals Feb. 26, winning by an eased-up two lengths while carrying 15 more pounds than the runner-up.

Trainer Art Sherman suggested this week that California Chrome was five lengths better than a year ago, though he later walked back the remark, saying he’d spoken out of pride. But Chrome’s form is tricky to read. The Derby and Preakness fields he beat have not aged well, and California Chrome’s one standout performance since then came when he finished a close third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic. His connections have raved about his training and bearing here, but California Chrome has been drenched with sweat during morning gallops.

The better-looking World Cup gallopers this week were Mshawish and Keen Ice. Mshawish shipped about two weeks ago from Florida and knows Meydan well since he was based here in 2014 and shipped to finish third last year in the Dubai Turf. Mshawish has since been refashioned as a dirt horse and, though he is 6, has never been better. He won his first Grade 1 dirt race Feb. 6 in the 1 1/8-mile Donn Handicap. Subsequent training has revealed a horse holding peak form, and Mshawish will be ridden by three-time World Cup winner Frankie Dettori. But the horse remains unproven over distances as long as the World Cup’s 1 1/4 miles.

“We had wondered, ‘Was he just a miler?’ ” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “And he answered that, and now he has to answer the question going 1 1/4 miles against the world’s best.”

Keen Ice has failed to follow up on his upset of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes last summer and was seventh in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3, his local World Cup prep. But he raced far off the rail that night on an inside-biased track, and at the suggestion of jockey Ryan Moore, Keen Ice will try blinkers Saturday, with a chance at getting a strong run into a fast, contested pace.

Special Fighter was the unlikely front-end winner of the Maktoum Challenge Round 3, and he is expected to race forwardly again. Hokko Tarumae is a confirmed front-runner. California Chrome, breaking from post 11, will have to be sent for position before the first turn, while Gun Pit, drawn inside, also has speed, and the Frosted camp does not want to fall far behind. There’s the potential for a demanding tempo, and if a closer like Keen Ice has a chance, so might Hoppertunity.

“He needs every bit of the mile and a quarter,” said Hoppertunity’s two-time World Cup-winning trainer, Bob Baffert.

More bettors worldwide, though, will predict that California Chrome finishes the job this year, or Frosted settles into a nice stalking trip and gives Buick his second straight World Cup win.

Though somewhere in England, Prince Bishop paws the ground, a rumbling reminder of the improbable.