03/24/2011 2:54PM

Dubai Duty Free start of grand plans for Wigmore Hall

Four-Footed Fotos
Wigmore Hall's connections have plotted an ambitious schedule of international races for him in 2011, beginning with the Dubai Duty Free.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It doesn’t really compute, favoring the second-place finisher in the 2010 Secretariat Stakes over the winner of the 2010 Arlington Million. Sure, the Secretariat’s a nice race, but it’s a 3-year-old restricted, supporting feature on the Million Day card. Still, using recent form as a guide, it’s Secretariat runner-up Wigmore Hall who has the advantage over Million winner Debussy in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on Saturday night.

Those two are part of a 14-horse field for the Duty Free, a turf race that starts in a chute off the backstretch and will be contested over about 1 1/8 miles around one full turn on a firm, fast Meydan turf course.

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Wigmore Hall’s earliest days as a racehorse were fraught with misbehavior. Gelding took care of that, and by the middle of last summer, Wigmore Hall started showing serious signs of life. He finished a good closing second to Paddy O’Prado after shipping to Chicago for the Secretariat, a performance that has guided his subsequent career arc.

“Basically, after the race in Chicago we decided he’d be an international horse,” said trainer Michael Bell.

Bell and owner Mark Hawtin have grand 2011 plans for Wigmore Hall, with trips to Hong Kong, Singapore, and back to Arlington for the Million under consideration. Their course of action got off to a surprisingly good start when Wigmore Hall rallied strongly to win the Grade 2 Jebel Hatta here on March 3, a race intended as no more than a Duty Free prep for Wigmore Hall.

“To win the trial was really a bonus,” said Bell, who had trained Wigmore Hall back home in England with a peak World Cup Night performance in mind.

Poet’s Voice, the Jebel Hatta second, goes in the World Cup, but show horse Presvis is set for his third Duty Free start. Second in the 2009 edition, Presvis finished 11th in last year’s race, and while capable of high-class performance, Presvis has an unpredictable side.
“He has his quirks,” said trainer Luca Cumani. “We don’t understand each other yet, even after seven years. Our thinking still hasn’t matched up.”

Presvis has been on good behavior this week, however, and has made a highly favorable impression during morning exercise.
Debussy should not be discounted despite his recent performance. A 13th-place finish in his lone start this winter came on Tapeta, and the 12-furlong Breeders’ Cup turf confirmed Debussy’s preference for shorter distances like that of the Duty Free.

“I think he will run much better, especially as he is back on turf,” said trainer Mahmoud al Zarooni.

Before Debussy came to Dubai, John Gosden trained him, and Gosden has shipped Tazeez from England for the Duty Free. Tazeez has won four of five starts over the Duty Free distance, but Gosden sounded a skeptical note this week. “I think he will be outgunned,” he said.

Australian-bred Better Than Ever has won 14 of 15 starts but has compiled the record facing inferior competition in Singapore. Meeting higher-class foes in the Singapore Gold Cup last fall, Better Than Ever finished 12th.

Locally based horses Bankable and Derbaas have a better chance. Bankable finished second in the 2010 Duty Free and prepped for this year’s race with a Tapeta sprint. Derbaas began his career 1 for 8 but has won his last four starts, most recently capturing the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort. The mare Raihana finished second in the Al Fahidi, but trainer Mike de Kock said he believes both she and his other Duty Free entrant, River Jeretz, can contend Saturday.

“Both are in very good form,” said de Kock, who twice has won the Duty Free.