03/14/2013 11:42AM

Dubai: Animal Kingdom leads U.S. team out to end World Cup futility

Barbara D. Livingston
Animal Kingdom is expected to run in the Dubai World Cup on March 30 at Meydan. U.S.-based runners are 1 for 26 since the World Cup program was moved to Meydan's Tapeta surface.

Not since Curlin spent six weeks in Dubai in February and March 2008 had a United States-based horse traveled early to the Middle East to run in a prep race for the Dubai World Cup. But Saturday, March 9, two such runners competed at Meydan Race Course. The circumstances might have been unusual, but the results were not: Just like 22 of the previous 23 American shippers to race in Dubai since Meydan replaced Nad Al Sheba in 2010 as the site of Dubai’s major racing events, Little Mike and Dullahan lost. And like most of those Americans at Meydan, they lost decisively, Dullahan finishing 11th in the Burj Nahaar, Little Mike eighth in Round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge.

The defeats weren’t disastrous. Dullahan broke slowly from an inside post position and had a tough trip in a one-turn mile shorter than his best distance. Little Mike came awkwardly through a narrow gap along the rail to take the lead about five furlongs out, but he never looked comfortable once in front and had little spark in the homestretch. Kieren Fallon, an English rider unfamiliar with either animal, rode the pair. The races were intended as trials for World Cup Night, March 30. It was rash to expect either horse to win under the circumstances. Still, two more unplaced runners to go with the host of others preceding them at Meydan raised a question asked with increasing persistence since 2011, the first year Americans were shut out on World Cup Night: After massive World Cup success during the event’s first 14 years, can U.S.-based horses shine again?

On Nad Al Sheba’s dirt track, U.S.-based runners won 17 Group 1 stakes races between 1996 and 2009, when Well Armed ran away with the last Nad Al Sheba World Cup. Since the opening of Meydan, Kinsale King is the only American shipper to win on the World Cup card, taking the 2010 Golden Shaheen. Seven U.S.-based horses have run in the World Cup, their best finishes a fourth and a fifth by Gio Ponti in 2010 and 2011. The average Meydan finish position for U.S.-based World Cup starters has been 9.1. The 39 World Cup runners at Nad Al Sheba had an average finish position of 4.4.

That Gio Ponti, mainly a turf horse at home, achieved the high-water mark does not seem coincidental. The main track at Meydan is an all-weather surface composed of Tapeta Footings devised by former trainer Michael Dickinson. It is a commonly held belief that all-weather racing more closely resembles turf racing than it does dirt racing. On dirt at Nad al Sheba, U.S. horses – the best dirt horses anywhere – held a significant edge over the rest of the world. The trip to Dubai was arduous and required a standout specimen to adapt. The races were conducted without Lasix or other medications that U.S.-based horses were permitted to use on race-day back home. But on dirt, Americans still won in droves.

That was never the case on turf, however. U.S.-based runners have been blanked in World Cup meeting turf stakes: They are 0 for 40 in the Sheema Classic, the Duty Free, and the more recently introduced Al Quoz Sprint. Breeders’ Cup turf-race winners English Channel, Miesque’s Approval, Better Talk Now, and Kip Deville all raced in Dubai turf stakes, and their best finish was a ninth by Better Talk Now. The grass failures at Nad Al Sheba were as total as they have been at Meydan, and Meydan’s all-weather surface has simply taken away the American edge in main-track races. The World Cup playing field has been leveled. It will take a special American horse in the right circumstances to come out on top again.

It remains to be seen whether the ship-early tactics employed by trainer Dale Romans with Dullahan and Little Mike can produce results more satisfying to an American audience. Since Curlin used a Nad Al Sheba handicap race Feb. 28, 2008, as a springboard to his World Cup victory a month later, only one other U.S.-based horse has traveled early to Dubai for a World Cup Night prep. That was Regally Ready, who finished 13th in the Meydan Sprint last year three weeks before finishing 14th in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on the World Cup card. It was trainer Steve Asmussen who made the call to send both horses for a local prep and assistant trainer Scott Blasi, who traveled with them. Everything went right for Curlin, whereas Regally Ready never could get right, even with extra time in Dubai. Normally a brilliant, fast horse out of the gate, Regally Ready could not even make the lead in his two Meydan starts.

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“I’ve seen horses in the past get real flat and lifeless going there,” Blasi said.

That apparently was not the case with Dullahan or Little Mike. Photos and videos out of Meydan during training hours the week before their races showed horses with glowing coats and good energy. Just before boarding a Dubai-bound plane March 6, Romans told HRTV that both horses had traveled well and trained well.

Dullahan and Little Mike flew on a cargo plane from Florida to Dubai by way of Amsterdam, where they stayed overnight. The trip was uncomplicated and not especially taxing. In the early days of the World Cup, travel could drain an American runner. If a horse managed to hold form in Dubai, he might well lose it after coming home. Even mighty Cigar looked weary in his first days in Dubai, his trainer, Bill Mott said. But the trip has gotten far easier since Mott sent Cigar to win the first World Cup 17 years ago.

“The trip itself, we can make it from our barn at Payson Park [in Florida] to our barn in Dubai in less time than it takes to van one from Payson to Belmont Park,” said Mott, who has Royal Delta on target for her second World Cup start this year.

The part of the trip that has become more demanding for Americans since the shift from Nad Al Sheba to Meydan is the journey from the quarantine barn to the racetrack for training. On many mornings, Curlin would walk out the back door of the quarantine barn, through a couple of paddocks, and be at the old dirt training track that since has been dismantled. The Nad Al Sheba main track also sat considerably closer to the quarantine barn than Meydan: Horses must walk nearly a mile to get from their stall onto the track now.

“The racetrack is so far away for the way the American horses are used to training,” Blasi said. “I think you’re at a disadvantage with that setup. They did allow some horses to van over later last year, but that’s not ideal, either.”

Little Mike and Dullahan, proven Grade 1 horses at their best on turf and synthetic surfaces, rank among the best American-based runners sent to Meydan. The pair will be part of a U.S. contingent that, in theory, should be formidable, with Royal Delta and Animal Kingdom to join Dullahan in the World Cup; Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg and talented Private Zone pointed to the Golden Shaheen; and a pair of 3-year-olds, He’s Had Enough and Java’s War, possible for the UAE Derby.

The proven quality of Little Mike and Dullahan was one reason their losses occasioned such dismay from American fans and pundits on social media sites just after the March 9 losses. For Little Mike, though, the Maktoum Challenge was an experiment as much as a prep: He’d never started on an all-weather surface, and a strong showing in the Maktoum Challenge would have landed him a slot in the $10 million World Cup. Instead, Little Mike, the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, will attempt to become the first American-based winner of a Dubai turf race. Little Mike could start in either of the two $5 million turf races on the World Cup card, though the Sheema Classic at about 1 1/2 miles is perhaps the more likely spot than the Dubai Duty Free over about 1 1/8 miles, according to Carlo Vaccarezza, who bred Little Mike, and whose wife, Priscilla, owns him.

Dullahan came into the Burj Nahaar as the best all-weather performer ever sent from the U.S., having won Grade 1’s in his three all-weather starts at home – the Breeders’ Futurity and the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Those races all came on Polytrack, and there remains the chance Dullahan does not act as well on the Tapeta surface at Meydan, though many horsemen, such as Graham Motion, believe there isn’t a huge divergence between even the most diverse synthetic surfaces. Motion sent Lucky Chappy out to finish seventh in the 2012 UAE Derby on World Cup Night. This year, he’ll try to win the World Cup with Animal Kingdom.

“I think most all-weather surfaces are comparable,” Motion said. “Probably what varies more than anything is maintenance, climate, and longevity. There’s no doubt in my mind that a track that’s been there a little longer than another one is going to play differently.”

Mott was at Meydan in 2010 with Courageous Cat, who finished ninth on turf in the Duty Free but trained regularly over the Tapeta surface. Last year, Mott was back with Royal Delta, who finished a troubled ninth in the World Cup after training with aplomb on Tapeta. Mott said he noted a change in the main track last year compared with his visit two years earlier.

“It just seemed like a much darker surface,” Mott said. “The texture seemed to have changed a little bit.”

It’s nearly impossible to duplicate Meydan conditions without actually undertaking the trip. Dubai nights can be cool and foggy, but the track basically sits in the desert, and temperatures rocket once the sun comes fully up. Even the best track maintenance only goes so far in mitigating the effect of climate on an all-weather track. Motion trains daily on one of Dickinson’s Tapeta surfaces at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland.

“At Fair Hill, we’re very diligent with what Michael recommends we do with it. I think we’ve maintained a very stable track, but it still varies,” Motion said. “I love Fair Hill if it rains all night: That’s when the track is at its best. It kind of tightens it up.”

“Tight as a drum” is exactly the phrase Carl O’Callaghan used to describe the Meydan racing surface on World Cup Night 2010. O’Callaghan has none of the burnished credentials of Romans, Mott, or Motion (his stable has one win so far in 2013), but as the trainer of Kinsale King, he remains the only American-based trainer to win at Meydan.

“The first year we were there it was exactly the same as at Golden Gate,” said O’Callaghan, referring to Golden Gate Fields, the Northern California track that uses a Tapeta surface.

O’Callaghan, in fact, moved his 10-horse stable from Southern California to Golden Gate after Kinsale King won the Palos Verdes Handicap on Jan. 23, 2010. “I told the owner, if he doesn’t handle this track, there’s no point going to Dubai.”

Kinsale King returned to Meydan the next year but was scratched from the Golden Shaheen the morning of the race after breaking out in hives. O’Callaghan thought he noticed a difference in the track surface. “I thought in 2011 the surface was a little more fluffy. I thought it needed more rain.”

Animal Kingdom has handled every racing surface Motion has put him on, and Motion said he feels confident the Tapeta surface also will fall within his scope.

“I would be surprised if he doesn’t handle it, but then you never know how it’ll be on the night − hot, slow, tacky,” Motion said.

It’s possible Dullahan and Little Mike will gain advantage spending extra time in Dubai, more days on the local surfaces. Motion said that a local prep was considered for Animal Kingdom but that the Feb. 9 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap offered better timing than anything overseas. Mott, on the other hand, has never believed shipping a horse early for a practice race offers tangible benefit.

“I think they either like a surface or they don’t,” Mott said. “As long as your horse is comfortable, feeling good, training well, they’re going to be able to handle the surface or not. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to train over it. The horses that have been in Dubai since November are much more acclimated than anyone shipping in. Weather, climate, air, time change – those are all real factors. But I don’t know horses there two weeks in advance have an advantage on a horse that’s been there a few days.”

It was fitting that California-based Well Armed won the last World Cup at Nad Al Sheba. Take nothing away from Well Armed and his connections. He was spot on March 28, 2009, his 14-length thumping of Gloria de Campeao the widest margin of victory in World Cup history. But Well Armed fell well short of being a great American racehorse. He was a good horse who was good on the night and racing over a surface that favored him. And the very next year, in the first World Cup over the Tapeta at Meydan, it was Gloria de Campeao, no match for a decent American on dirt, who came out on top.

− additional reporting by Marty McGee

U.S.-based runners on World Cup Day

Horses based in the U.S. have gone 1 for 26 in the Dubai World Cup program since it was moved to Meydan's Tapeta surface in 2010.


Royal Delta Sabin (Gulfstream) Feb. 25, 2012 2nd by 8 Dubai World Cup 9th by 8 1/2
Game On Dude San Antonio (Santa Anita) Feb. 5, 2012 1st by 5 1/4 Dubai World Cup 12th by 20 1/2
Giant Ryan Breeders' Cup Sprint (Churchill) Nov. 5, 2011 8th by 13 1/4 Dubai Golden Shaheen 5th by 9
The Factor San Carlos (Santa Anita) Feb. 25, 2012 1st by 1/2 Dubai Golden Shaheen 6th by 9
Regally Ready Meydan Sprint (Meydan) March 10, 2012 13th by 10 3/4 Al Quoz Sprint 14th by 10 1/2
Lucky Chappy El Camino Real Derby (Golden Gate) Feb. 18, 2012 2nd by nose UAE Derby 7th by 9


Gio Ponti Breeders' Cup Mile (Churchill) Nov. 6, 2010 2nd by 1 3/4 Dubai World Cup 5th by 1 3/4
Fly Down Donn Handicap (Gulfstream) Feb. 5, 2011 5th by 5 3/4 Dubai World Cup 13th by 20
Bourbon Bay San Luis Obispo (Santa Anita) Feb. 19, 2011 2nd by nose Dubai Sheema Classic 11th by 23 1/4
Champ Pegasus San Luis Obispo (Santa Anita) Feb. 19, 2011 1st by nose Dubai Sheema Classic 12th by 29 1/4
Victor's Cry Thunder Road (Santa Anita) Feb. 5, 2011 3rd by 1 1/2 Dubai Duty Free 5th by 4 1/4
Euroears Palos Verdes (Santa Anita) Jan. 22, 2011 1st by 2 1/4 Dubai Golden Shaheen 2nd by 2 1/4
Make Music for Me Strub (Santa Anita) Feb. 5, 2011 3rd by 7 Godolphin Mile 7th by 6 1/4
I Want Revenge Donn Handicap (Gulfstream) Feb. 5, 2011 4th by 2 1/2 Godolphin Mile 10th by 8 1/4
Quick Enough Sensational Star (Santa Anita) Feb. 27, 2011 1st by 1/2 Al Quoz Sprint 8th by 3 1/2
Stradivinsky Gulfstream Turf Sprint (Gulfstream) Jan. 23, 2011 1st by 1 1/4 Al Quoz Sprint 13th by 6 1/4
Mr Gruff Shoemaker Mile (Hollywood) May 31, 2010 3rd by 1 1/4 Al Quoz Sprint 16th by 9 1/4


Gio Ponti Tampa Bay Stakes (Tampa Bay) Feb. 10, 2010 2nd by nose Dubai World Cup 4th by 1 1/4
Richard's Kid San Antonio (Santa Anita) Feb. 7, 2010 1st by head Dubai World Cup 7th by 2 1/2
Furthest Land San Antonio (Santa Anita) Feb. 7, 2010 5th by 3/4 Dubai World Cup 14th by 12
Presious Passion Mac Diarmida (Gulfstream) Feb. 28, 2010 1st by 1 1/4 Dubai Sheema Classic 16th by 37 1/2
The Usual Q.T. Sunshine Millions Classic (Santa Anita) Jan. 30, 2010 9th by 5 Dubai Duty Free 4th by 5
Take the Points Gulfstream Turf Handicap (Gulfstream) Feb. 6, 2010 1st by 1 1/2 Dubai Duty Free 5th by 5 1/4
Courageous Cat Canadian Turf (Gulfstream) Feb. 20, 2010 1st by head Dubai Duty Free 9th by 6 3/4
Kinsale King Palos Verdes (Santa Anita) Jan. 23, 2010 1st by 1/2 Dubai Golden Shaheen 1st by 1/2
California King Hong Kong Sprint (Sha Tin) Dec. 3, 2009 5th by 1 3/4 Al Quoz Sprint 3rd by 1