03/22/2017 9:00AM

Dubai World Cup: Hoppertunity a blue-collar multimillionaire

Neville Hopwood/Dubai Racing Club
Hoppertunity has earned over $4 million in 25 lifetime starts.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – In American racing, they call an honest horse who grinds his way start after start into regular purse earnings without ever dominating his competition a “check-getter.” Hoppertunity is a check-getter on about the grandest scale imaginable.

“He’s made $4 million nickel and diming,” said trainer Bob Baffert.

There are big checks to he handed out after Saturday night’s races at Meydan in Dubai. Hoppertunity got one of those last year when he finished third in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, and he is back for another try this year.

Hoppertunity once again is going about his business here in relative anonymity. Last year in Dubai, Hoppertunity was a back-page story as the racing headlines shouted the latest on California Chrome. This year, it is Hoppertunity’s own stablemate Arrogate who’s the show-stopper.

“He’s always in the shadow of some other horse; he’s never the horse,” Baffert said. “He’s always been a favorite of the barn, but there’s always some other big shot in there.”

Hoppertunity, a 6-year-old by Any Given Saturday, wears the silks of one of Baffert’s main early supporters, Mike Pegram, who owns the horse with Karl Watson and Paul Weitman.

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Hoppertunity, who has a record of 7-6-4 from 25 starts that have yielded $4.06 million in earnings, finished second to California Chrome in the 2014 Santa Anita Derby but was injured days before he was to start in the Kentucky Derby and didn’t race again until that fall. He won the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in November 2014 but would not win another Grade 1 for two years, until he beat Effinex last October in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Hoppertunity finished a flat fourth in the Clark last fall but roared into his 6-year-old season with a win Feb. 4 in the Grade 2 San Antonio over a 1 1/16-mile distance that is short of his best, and he has done nothing but impress Baffert all year.

“Hopper, he should run better in the World Cup this year,” Baffert said. “He’s just doing the best he’s ever done in his life right now. He’s kind of in a zone. He’s a horse that travels well. He’s got a body to him. He can take all this.”

The Frenchman Flavien Prat, who rode Hoppertunity in the San Antonio, has the mount again Saturday, but Baffert used Mexican cuisine to articulate Hoppertunity’s opportunity in the World Cup: “He’s a horse that’s coming, coming, getting second or third in these big races. Maybe this time he gets the whole enchilada.”

Mubtaahij a turf horse?

Last year after finishing second in the Dubai World Cup, Mubtaahij left Dubai and the stable of trainer Mike de Kock for a three-race American campaign with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. This year, the plan is for Mubtaahij to travel in the opposite direction after the World Cup.

De Kock said Wednesday that Mubtaahij is likely to run April 20 in Hong Kong in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup over about 1 1/4 miles on grass. Mubtaahij hasn’t made a grass start since a pair of forgettable races at Newmarket in the fall of his 2-year-old season in 2014. But Mubtaahij is a son of the major grass influence Dubawi, and de Kock thinks he can excel on turf.

“I’m keen to switch him to turf,” de Kock said. “He’s always looked like a decent turf horse. He works very well on turf, and certainly when I’ve worked him with my best turf horses, he goes with them.”

Mubtaahij, in fact, did his major work for the World Cup on the Meydan training track’s turf course March 16.

“He worked on his own,” de Kock said. “It was a really, really good workout.”

Still, de Kock is bearish on Mubtaahij’s chances to do more than acquit himself decently on Saturday. Mubtaahij nearly beat Shaman Ghost in the Grade 1 Woodward last summer after finishing third in the Suburban Handicap. Mubtaahij probably was over the top when he finished fourth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 8 and then had a long ordeal getting back to Dubai.

“He had to do a month of quarantine in Florida, and he didn’t arrive here until Dec. 12,” de Kock said. “He wasn’t moving as well as he had been when he came back. He was a horse that needed a break, but at the same time, he needed to try and get fit if he was going to run in the World Cup.”

De Kock had hoped to get two starts into Mubtaahij, but after the horse finished second (while giving 15 pounds to the winner) in the Feb. 23 Curlin Handicap here, de Kock decided just to run him fresh in the World Cup.

“He’d have come on again for a race, but I didn’t think it was the right thing for the horse to race him again,” de Kock said. “He’s actually just coming into form right now, but he’s not battle hard.”

If Mubtaahij doesn’t take to grass racing, de Kock said he likely will give him a long break and aim for a proper run in the 2018 World Cup.

“For me, retiring is not an option,” de Kock said. “When I look at him, I think he’s just reaching his peak physically. If grass doesn’t work out, we’ll just look at the World Cup and have a full go at the season here, run in the Maktoum Challenges and all that.”

Kentucky Derby iffy for Japanese horses

When Lani came to Dubai from a Japan a year ago, his connections already were talking about a run in the American Triple Crown, and Lani ran in all three legs of the series after winning the UAE Derby on the World Cup card.

But the trainers of the two Japanese 3-year-olds who are here this week for the UAE Derby – Epicharis and Adirato – are, at least outwardly, taking a more conservative approach.

Epicharis already has a slot in the Derby’s 20-horse field because he won the Japanese Road to the Kentucky Derby, a new branch of the qualifying system Churchill Downs has constructed to set the Derby field. The leading points earner in two chosen Japanese races is assured a Derby starting slot, and on the strength of his win Feb. 19 in the Hyacinth Stakes, Epicharis is that horse.

Epicharis, a son of Gold Allure, has started his career with four wins, and while his Hyacinth win wasn’t as dominant as his races at 2, he might well have needed his first start after a two-month layoff.

Still, trainer Hiyoshi Kagiwara said Epicharis has not been committed to the Derby.

“We will wait to consider running in the Derby until we see the result of this race Saturday,” Kagiwara said through an interpreter.

Epicharis worked a half-mile on dirt Wednesday.

Adirato was the second-leading points earner in the Japan series and could get into the Derby through that route should Epicharis falter.

“It all depends on how he runs this Saturday,” trainer Naosuke Sugai said. “He has a lot of options, and definitely the American race is one of them. But the Kentucky Derby, in my thoughts, is a very tough race. I wouldn’t say it’s very likely at this moment.”