11/07/2008 12:00AM

Dubai-to-Derby an unforgiving trail

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PHOENIX – Those who relish the thought of Vineyard Haven and Midshipman hooking up in next year’s classics may be a bit worried now. The two top American juveniles have been snatched up by Godolphin and now go to Dubai, where many other highly regarded American juveniles have gone, only to see their Derby hopes fade.

The lack of Derby success has nothing to do with how Godolphin works with its horses. It’s all about timing.

Geography gives Godolphin an advantage over many of its European counterparts. The ability to train all winter in Dubai may well give their horses a foundation edge over Euros, who are compromised by the weather and have no major racing in the winter. So, when the Godolphin horses show up in the spring when flat racing resumes in Europe, they may well have a fitness edge.

But Godolphin has no such advantage over its U.S. counterparts when it comes to pointing for the Derby. The American crop has been going at it since right after the Breeders’ Cup. There are major 2-year-old stakes at Aqueduct, Churchill, and Hollywood through the end of the year, and Derby preps in 2009 at Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Aqueduct and elsewhere. Horses can train right through winter here, too, in California, New Orleans, and Florida.

By March U.S. 3-year-olds are fit, and have had a chance to sort themselves out competition-wise and to regroup if they run a bad race. The Godolphin scenario presents no such option, because there are few race in Dubai for 3-year-olds. Say Vineyard Haven doesn’t run until the UAE Derby in late March. What if he runs a dud then? He would not have the luxury of having the time to regroup and get ready for the Kentucky Derby. If he came back to the U.S. instead and, say, ran poorly in a February comeback race, he would still the time to right the ship and get back on track for the first Saturday in May.

Godolphin will win a Derby, of this I’m sure. The Godolphin people are far too focused, too smart, and have the ability to go get major Derby prospects because of their purse strings, and there isn’t a thing in the world wrong with that.

But they have to know by now that the winter-in-Dubai plan means there is no margin – zilch – for error.

These arguments don’t wash

While I will almost certainly vote for Curlin for Horse of the Year (provided he does not run in and lose the Clark), the two knocks I keep hearing regarding Zenyatta’s worthiness as Horse of the Year strike me as invalid.

At least a few columns have said something like this: Aside from Ginger Punch and Hystericalady, who has she really beaten? You’re kidding, right? Aside from Ginger Punch and Hystericalady? They were only the one-two finishers in last year’s race and Ginger Punch only happens to be the reigning filly and mare champion. Zenyatta not only whipped her on synthetic in the BC Ladies’ Classic but drilled her on the dirt in Oaklawn’s Apple Blossom. She also beat Music Note, a 3-year-old who won multiple Grade 1’s in New York and may well be named champion 3-year-old filly. Zenyatta dusted Cocoa Beach and Carriage Trail, Grade 1 winners in New York and Kentucky, respectively. She also, on more than one occasion, thoroughly whipped Tough Tiz’s Sis, who only came back to win the Grade 1 Ruffian by 12 1/4 lengths for a 113 Beyer. Beat nobody? That’s like saying aside from defending BC Mile champ Kip Deville and Grade 1 winners Daytona, Perfect Kitten and Thorn Song, who did Goldikova beat?

Also, the horses Curlin vanquished this year were far less accomplished than those Zenyatta defeated. Name the best horse Curlin beat this year. He did not beat a defending Breeders’ Cup winner (she did so twice). He didn’t beat a reigning Eclipse Award winner (she did so twice). His immediate victims in his five wins this year were Familiar Territory, Asiatic Boy, Einstein, Pass the Point and Wanderin Boy – nice horses all, but as a group much less accomplished than the horses Zenyatta beat.

I also don’t understand the “she raced almost solely in California” argument. What, there’s some travel requirement for Horse of the Year? When she did travel, to Oaklawn (to race on dirt no less), she romped. Does this mean we have to take back Eclipse Awards won by Ack Ack, Secretariat, Forego, Dehere, Fly So Free, Declan’s Moon, etc., because they never or rarely left their home base? Please.

Now, if you don’t want to vote for Zenyatta because you believe the breadth of Curlin’s accomplishments this year is greater, then, hey, come stand next to me. But to use the aformentioned arguments against her, well, you have your head stuck in the Pro-Ride if that’s the case.