02/13/2009 12:00AM

Dubai preps muddle the early Derby picture

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NEW YORK - As American horseplayers try to make sense of the limited amount of 2-year-old and early 3-year-old form in hopes of making a successful Kentucky Derby Future Wager this weekend, one of the biggest questions they have to deal with is what to do with the increasing influence of the Maktoum family and its Dubai prep races on the American classic picture.

In 2006, the Maktoums won two-thirds of the American Triple Crown when Bernardini won the Preakness and Jazil took the Belmont. In 2007, they bought three of the sophomore crop's four top colts, purchasing Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday and retiring them all to stud at year's end.

This year, they got in on the action even earlier and have injected their homeland into the picture. Midshipman and Vineyard Haven, the one-two finishers in both the Experimental Handicap and the Eclipse Award juvenile champion voting, were both purchased last fall and sent to Dubai, where Vineyard Haven finished fourth in the UAE 2000 Guineas last Thursday and where Midshipman is scheduled to make his season debut next month. They have five other Triple Crown prospects, including Desert Party and Regal Ransom, formerly American-based colts who ran one-two in the UAE 2000 Guineas.

So a race not even mentioned on most lists of key Derby preps, and run half a world away, was probably the strongest field of 3-year-olds assembled anywhere this year. America's champion 2-year-old of 2008 will make his debut in something called the Al Bastakiya, a listed race at Nad Al Sheba on March 5. What are handicappers to make of the Dubai road to Kentucky and its likelihood of success?

What really clouds the question is that there clearly are issues involved here that go beyond the past performances on how to prepare a 3-year-old for the American classics. The Maktoums's greatest success with American 3-year-olds has been when their participation has been its most passive - leaving horses such as Bernardini and Jazil in the hands of their American-based trainers rather than wintering and prepping them in Dubai. The latter route has been an unequivocal failure in the past, albeit with lesser horses than the current bunch. When the Maktoums first set their sights on the Kentucky Derby in the mid-1990s, they guaranteed they would win the race by 2002. They have since backed away from that timeline, but not from their preference to win it in unorthodox fashion, via Dubai. While they have become more aggressive in trying to corner the market on Derby prospects, buying the top-rated male horses as well as the most expensive yearlings and unraced 2-year-olds, the goal appears to be the same as when Jason Levin wrote the following in his 2003 book "From the Desert to the Derby":

"Sheik Mohammed's expensive, single-minded quest to put his stamp on America's most prestigious horse race meant that if a Godolphin horse did win the Kentucky Derby, it would have done so Sheik Mohammed's way."

Good luck to them. Until it happens, though, taking 12-1 on either Midshipman or Vineyard Haven, their Derby Future morning-line prices, sure seems like taking the worst of it.

Reality show has wrong focus

I anticipated despising the new reality TV show "Jockeys" (Fridays, 9 p.m., Animal Planet) and I did, but not for the reasons I expected.

The problem with most such shows is their utter betrayal of "reality," where pre-arranged outcomes and scripted spontaneity masquerade as documentary. Other than some needless fake race calls, "Jockeys" does not seem to be a fraudulent enterprise. You actually get a pretty realistic picture of life in the jockeys' rooms and the struggles of aging veterans and ambitious newcomers. Riders such as Mike Smith, Joe Talamo, and Aaron Gryder come off as engaging and likeable people, and it's easy to root for them.

Unfortunately, it's framed in a stomach-turning, melodramatic context of constant death and danger. From the way that spills and breakdowns are endlessly shown and replayed in indulgent slow-motion - more than two dozen in the first episode alone - you would think that people attend horse races in the hopes of seeing carnage and get their wish several times a day.

It's a reflection of an extremely disturbing aspect of too much of Animal Planet's programming, a focus on animals in distress or peril whose purpose seems entirely exploitative rather than educational or remedial. Unless accidents and injury are your idea of entertainment, you might want to watch "Jockeys" with your finger on the fast-forward button, if at all.