03/27/2009 11:00PM

Complications for a $6 million puzzle

Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Albertus Maximus, who has never raced on mud, trains Thursday for a Dubai World Cup program that could be run under soggy

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Oh, for the clarity of last year. In the 2008 Dubai World Cup, Curlin matched his on-paper superiority with an eight-length blowout victory. But among the 14 horses entered in the 2009 World Cup there are no such standouts. This year, not even the skies are clear.

Just as the quarantined horses from across the globe took to the track to train shortly after 7 a.m. Thursday, rain began pelting down on Nad Al Sheba. A storm already had passed through the night before.

"This is not good, not good at all," said onlooking former Dubai resident Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Albertus Maximus, one of the World Cup favorites. "When it rains here, it really rains."

The World Cup never has been contested on a wet track, though the 1997 edition was postponed from Saturday to Thursday after a deluge. But Thursday's sodden weather is forecast to enshroud the Arabian Peninsula several more days.

Wet or dry, Saturday's program features the usual array of international star power, with an added twist: This will be the last World Cup at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse. In 2010, the event moves to the mammoth Meydan complex, under heavy construction just out Nad Al Sheba's back door. By next week, the existing grandstand and associated buildings here start coming down.

But first, the seven-race World Cup program, with the six-race Thoroughbred slate - worth a total of $21 million - commencing at 9:40 a.m. Eastern. The races will be televised in the United States on HRTV and TVG with a post of 1:30 p.m. set for the $6 million World Cup.

The night's first Thoroughbred race, the Goldophin Mile, looks as wide-open as the World Cup itself. Indian Blessing, who flew through mud winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, should star in the Golden Shaheen. Desert Party needs only to hold his form to win the UAE Derby and go onto the Kentucky Derby. Only 1 1/2 words sum up the two turf races, the loaded $5 million Duty Free, and the $5 million Sheema Classic: Pick 'em.

Albertus Maximus, purchased expressly for this night by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum following his win in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, not only has never raced in mud, he has never galloped over it. Two of his main rivals, Well Armed and Asiatic Boy, are in a similar position; neither has started on a wet track. But where Well Armed and Asiatic Boy have run at least decently over the World Cup's 1 1/4 miles (2,000 meters), Albertus Maximus finished eighth in his lone 1 1/4-mile start, the 2007 Pacific Classic.

Still, Albertus Maximus won the Donn Handicap over nine furlongs in his first race for McLaughlin, who has expressed confidence all week that his horse will get the distance. Albertus Maximus and jockey Alan Garcia break from post 10 and should track likely pacesetter Well Armed.

"I'd say he'd be forwardly placed - if not on the lead, then very close," McLaughlin said.

Aaron Gryder makes no bones about his intention to let his mount Well Armed run to the front. That is what Well Armed did last year, and he held for third, no match for Curlin's run and outfinished for second by Asiatic Boy.

Asiatic Boy is the local favorite - has been since he romped in the 2007 UAE Derby here. Last year, he had not only Curlin problems, but a schedule somewhat compromised by a taxing trip to England the summer before. A little behind in his training for last year's World Cup, Asiatic Boy made his first Dubai start going six furlongs, then went a mile in his World Cup prep. This year, trainer Mike de Kock started Asiatic Boy out in a nine-furlong race, where the horse finished third, and brought him back at the same distance March 5 to see him win going away.

"We had him here a little longer this year, and were able to get more into him," de Kock said. "He's better than last year."

Asiatic Boy fell farther off the early pace last time than usual, but has speed to stay with a slow early pace. The Japanese invader Casino Drive, twice a winner in the United States last year, also should be close to the front, but in years past, Japanese dirt form has not held up well here.

For the other Americans, Arson Squad and Anak Nakal, a career-best effort might be required to come close. Muhannak won the Breeders' Cup Marathon over lesser foes on an all-weather track. Snaafy, a locally based Sheikh Hamdan horse, has three wins here this winter, but at much shorter distances. The Godolphin-owned My Indy also had a good winter, and relished mud in his native Argentina, but drew poorly on the far outside. Dubai-based Happy Boy and Gloria De Campeao do not seem Asiatic Boy's equals.

And finally, three Saudi horses - Joe Louis, Muller, and Paris Perfect - have shipped in from the adjacent kingdom. They probably did not come expecting rain.

* Wagering on the card will be available at most major racetracks and offtrack betting sites in North America. There will be win, place, exacta, trifecta, superfecta, and rolling pick three bets. In addition, a pick six will link all six Thoroughbred stakes. The minimum bet for any wager will be $1.