03/28/2013 12:43PM

Dubai World Cup looks ready for U.S. to reclaim


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – From the first Dubai World Cup, which Cigar won in 1996, Americans became accustomed to leaving this strange city in the desert with chests puffed out. These days, they depart with tails between legs.

An American-based horse won nine of the 14 World Cups at the old Nad Al Sheba dirt track. Since the 2010 move to Meydan Racecourse, which employs an all-weather Tapeta racing surface, no American horse has finished among the top three in the World Cup, and only one U.S. runner has won any of the races on the World Cup card.

Surely this trend has a shelf life. Quite possibly, its expiration date comes Saturday.

The three American World Cup runners this year are better qualified to bring back a trophy than any group of horses that preceded them to Meydan. Animal Kingdom won the 2010 Kentucky Derby and is a proven commodity on synthetic surfaces. Royal Delta has won the Breeder’s Cup Ladies’ Classic two years in a row, and is making her second trip to Dubai, a mark in her favor. Dullahan won the most important synthetic-surface race in the United States, the Pacific Classic, and has been in Dubai for weeks, with a local prep race under his belt.

If none among this trio can get home first, maybe the radical naysayers suggesting Americans will never win another World Cup have a point.

Here in Dubai, the $10 million World Cup goes at 10:05 Saturday night, which is 2:05 p.m. Eastern time. The World Cup card, widely available in the United States for viewing and betting, begins with an Arabian race. The first of eight Thoroughbred stakes worth a total of $32 million has a scheduled post time of 9:10 a.m., Eastern. Two $5 million turf races lead into the World Cup, the Duty Free and the Sheema Classic. Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike is part of a remarkably deep bunch in the Duty Free, while Japanese star filly Gentildonna leads the Sheema Classic. Two Americans, Trinniberg and Private Zone, have a good chance in the $2 million Golden Shaheen.

[DUBAI WORLD CUP: Get PPs, watch Saturday's races live]

Many of the world’s best riders are here, including American veterans Mike Smith, who rides Royal Delta, and recently unretired Gary Stevens, who landed mounts on Dullahan and Little Mike. Top local trainers Saeed bin Suroor and Mike de Kock are loaded for the card: Bin Suroor has 15 runners, de Kock 13. The turf course here has been firm and fast all meet and conditions shouldn’t change Saturday. The forecast high temperature is about 90, and the warmth, which can turn the all-weather surface sticky, should persist into early evening.

There is the American drought, and then there is the fact no female has won a World Cup. Royal Delta could end both streaks. The 5-year-old mare got no love in official race comment attached to her ninth-place finish in the 2012 World Cup: “Had every chance 600 meters out,” the comment reads, a questionable interpretation. Royal Delta was in heavy traffic most of the race, getting steadied, roughed, and shuffled back at a key point on the far turn. She never really had a chance.

In the months since, Royal Delta has developed more of a front-running style. She led all the way in the Ladies’ Classic and was on the pace cruising to victory in her World Cup prep, the Feb. 17 Sabin at Gulfstream.

“She’s probably bigger and stronger and more mature than she was last year,” said trainer Bill Mott, who believes Royal Delta handles the Meydan surface. “I think she looks really good right now.”

Smith, Royal Delta’s rider, said he has learned to stay out of the mare’s way. The hope is Royal Delta breaks decently from the gate. If she does, she could find herself on the lead, a potentially advantageous spot in a race that should unfold at a moderate tempo.

Animal Kingdom won’t be in front, but trainer Graham Motion does not want to see his horse fall out the back door. Animal Kingdom drew poorly in post 12 and will need to leave running to gain position before the first turn.

“The last thing I want to see is him too far behind,” Motion said.

Jockey Joel Rosario rode Animal Kingdom for the first time in the Feb. 9 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, making a questionable early move on the way to a second-place finish behind top-class Point of Entry. He will have to work out a trip under tricky circumstances Saturday, but Animal Kingdom is getting back to 1 1/4 miles for the first time since his Derby win and should be coming late.

Dullahan finished 11th of 14 in the Burj Nahaar, his local World Cup prep, but he endured a very poor trip in a race far short of his best distance.

“Just draw a line through that race,” trainer Dale Romans said. “He had all the excuses in the world and got what he needed out of it.”

Also disappointing in his World Cup prep was Monterosso, the race’s defending champion. Unstarted since July, Monterosso finished 10th on March 9 in Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge.

“I thought he might run a better race, and he didn’t,” trainer Mahmood al Zarooni said. “His preparation this year has been much more difficult than last year, a lot more stop-and-start.”

Monterosso is one of three Godolphin runners. African Story, a superior synthetic-surface miler, races beyond that distance for the first time in his career. Hunter’s Light has been one of the stars of the Dubai winter, winning rounds 2 and 3 of the Maktoum Challenge, but while he is the morning-line favorite for the World Cup, Hunter’s Light faces much stronger competition than he has recently beaten. Another al Zarooni-trained runner, Capponi, makes his first start since finishing second in the 2012 World Cup. He had speed a year ago, but his trainer doesn’t know what to expect Saturday.

Planteur was third in the 2012 World Cup, but is a stronger, more mentally balanced animal this year, according to Lucie Botti, assistant trainer, exercise rider, and wife of trainer Marco Botti. At his best, Planteur won the Group 1 Prix Ganay over top-class Sarafina and Cirrus des Aigles. Meandre, sold this week by the Rothschild family to Ramzan Kadyrov, is an established Group 1 performer on turf, and is not without a chance. The same might be said of Treasure Beach, whose aching feet have improved considerably over the winter, de Kock said. Red Cadeaux is a 1 1/2-mile turf horse in a 1 1/4-mile Tapeta race, while Kassiano and Side Glance would be shocking winners.

Not at all shocking – a fact somewhat shocking in its own right – would be the sight of an American horse in the winner’s circle Saturday night at Meydan.