03/27/2014 3:19PM

Dubai: Duty Free, Sheema Classic come up strong

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Andrew Watkins
Beverly D. winner Dank may not be at her absolute best this early in the racing season.

At $5 million each, the Dubai Duty Free and the Sheema Classic are half as lucrative as the Dubai World Cup, but both races – the Duty Free in particular – drew fields every bit as strong and deep as the main event Saturday night in Dubai.

The Duty Free, at about 1 1/8 miles on turf, boasts the strongest field in the race’s 14-year history. Among the 13 entrants are two mares familiar to American racing fans: Dank won the Beverly D. and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf last year, while The Fugue finished second as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Yet neither Dank nor The Fugue looks anything like a standout in the Duty Free, won by the mare Sajjhaa last year. England-based The Fugue, thought until last week to have the World Cup as her target, clearly travels well and has the requisite class, but the Duty Free distance is shorter than her preferred trip.

Dank’s two best races came on American courses not entirely dissimilar to Meydan’s, but there’s no Lasix for Dank in the Duty Free, and trainer Michael Stoute told the Racing Post that the race “is probably a little early in the year for her.”

The leading Dubai-based runner is Vercingetorix, who is unbeaten after six starts and a two-time winner at Meydan, but Vercingetorix faces the strongest competition he’s encountered.

“We basically do not know how good he is or how much more he can improve,” trainer Mike de Kock said. “He is a lazy horse at home and on the track he wins his races with the minimum effort.”

[Dubai World Cup: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

None of the three Japanese entrants – Tokei Halo, Logotype, and Just A Way – are overmatched, but Just A Way is the best of the trio. He beat Gentildonna, a major player in the Sheema Classic, by four lengths in the Tenno Sho last fall, and was similarly sharp winning his March 2 prep in Japan.

Sheema: Gentildonna has seen it all before

Gentildonna could not match St Nicholas Abbey’s homestretch strides and settled for second in the 2013 Sheema Classic, but this year Gentildonna has an excellent chance to win the 1 1/2-mile grass race in her second trip to Dubai.

“This is her second time here, so she looked more relaxed and settled,” trainer Sei Ishikaza said. “I think she is in better form and will show better performance.”

Gentildonna came into last year’s Sheema after a four-month break, but she got in a Feb. 16 race this time, finishing sixth in a performance that should be seen as a good prep for Saturday’s main event.

Another Japanese filly, Denim and Ruby, ranks as one of her main rivals. Gentildonna beat Denim and Ruby by a nose in the Japan Cup last fall, and Denim and Ruby gets the same four-pound break in the weights Saturday as she did that race.

Cirrus des Aigles, the amazing French 8-year-old gelding, didn’t travel to Dubai last year but won the Sheema by a neck over St Nicholas Abbey in 2012, prepping in the same synthetic-surface race at Chantilly that he used again this winter.

“He has been at his best for three years, and who knows, he now may be even better,” trainer Corine Barande-Barbe said.

Cirrus des Aigles breaks from post 15, one stall outside capable Hong Kong invader Dominant, but wide draws don’t doom a horse at this distance on Meydan turf. Better drawn is Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Magician, who relished left-handed, firm-turf racing at Santa Anita but might not get conditions quite as ideal Saturday. Trainer Aidan O’Brien has supplied Magician with a pacemaker named Festive Cheer.

The American horse Twilight Eclipse would need by far the best performance of his career to make an impression in this field.

Three repeat possibilities

The horses that won the Al Quoz Sprint, the Dubai Gold Cup, and the Godolphin Mile in 2013 could all repeat Saturday night.

Shea Shea, the Al Quoz sprint winner, looks like the card’s most formidable favorite, and his draw on the outside of a 12-horse field puts Shea Shea in a great spot to get to his preferred position on the stand’s side fence. Hong Kong rocket Amber Sky might be the danger.

De Kock trains both Shea Shea and 2013 Godolphin Mile winner Soft Falling Rain, who should improve on his eighth-place finish in a March 8 Meydan sprint. “He was badly in need of his sprint outing on Super Saturday,” de Kock said.

Godolphin’s Cavalryman romped in the two-mile Gold Cup last year, and was similarly dominant in his local prep for the race this season. And there’s a strong chance the UAE Derby, as has been the case in all four editions at Meydan, will fall either to a Coolmore horse from Ireland or a locally based Godolphin runner. Long John is the Godolphin hope, while Aidan O’Brien will try for his second straight win in the Derby with Giovanni Boldini, runner-up in the BC Juvenile Turf. The UAE Derby is a 170-point qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby, with the first four finishers earning points on a 100-40-20-10 basis.