03/24/2010 11:00PM

Dubai World Cup: New stage, new rules

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THE MEYDAN TRACK

Gone is the left-handed, triangular track at the now-defunct Nad Al Sheba, with its dirt course outside of the turf course. In its place we have at Meydan an oval, left-handed, 1 1/2-mile turf course, inside of which lies a one-mile, 165-yard synthetic track, a Tapeta surface designed and installed by Michael Dickinson.

The Tapeta track also is an American-style oval with a two-furlong stretch. In configuration, it closely resembles Belmont Park's Widener turf course. There is a dogleg chute leading onto the backstretch from which races of one mile - the Godolphin Mile, in particular - are started. The 1 1/4-mile Dubai World Cup will be a two-turn affair, starting in front of the grandstand with a nearly two-furlong run to the first turn.

Conversely, the turf course is almost a duplicate of the Belmont main track, except the finish line is positioned farther down the stretch, making the turf stretch itself 2 1/4 furlongs. A straight six-furlong course joins the stretch and will be used for the Al Quoz Sprint, the new race on the World Cup card this year. The 1 1/8-mile Dubai Duty Free will start from a chute on the backstretch, looking very much like a 1 1/8-mile dirt race at Belmont.

In addition to all of the former dirt races now being run on a synthetic track, there are two other major changes at Meydan. The Dubai Golden Shaheen, formerly run on Nad Al Sheba's straight six-furlong track, will be run American style around a single 180-degree turn, albeit with a stretch that is lengthier than any in America. Also, the UAE Derby, formerly run at 1 1/8 miles, is a 1 3/16-mile race; the added sixteenth was tacked on to give horses a longer run to the first turn.

A DIFFERENT BIAS

At Nad Al Sheba, horses running on dirt had a tough time winning from anywhere much farther back than fourth or fifth. Similarly, early speed usually held well in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. In this first season on the Meydan Tapeta, there has been no discernible track bias, although winning on the front end is a relative rarity. Most winners are coming from mid-pack, with an equal number winning from tracking positions and from well out of it.

The reason for the general lack of bias is kickback. When horses are not having dirt kicked into their faces, they tend to bunch up closer and the pacesetters tend to go slower, especially with a plethora of European jockeys involved. This makes for more exciting finishes, with closers having an equal chance against speed horses.

The longer stretches also give closers an advantage over front-runners.

Perhaps the horse who will find the longer stretch least attractive is Presious Passion. Used to maintaining his big leads through stretches that are barely 1 1/2 furlongs long, he will have to defend his assumed Dubai Sheema Classic lead through a 2 1/4-furlong stretch.

KEY RACES

Dubai World Cup: The Donn Handicap has produced four World Cup winners - Cigar, Captain Steve, Roses in May, and Invasor - but with the world's richest race being run on a synthetic track, there are no Donn horses at Meydan. Pleasantly Perfect and Well Armed came out of the San Antonio and won the World Cup, so Richard's Kid - fresh from a weight-giving, come-from-behind victory in that race - must be considered. Locally, Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge, the course and distance World Cup prep, has produced two winners in Dubai Millennium and Electrocutionist. That points out the chances of Red Desire, who came from far back to nip Gloria de Campeao in Round 3.

Dubai Sheema Classic: No race stands out as a key race for the Dubai Sheema Classic, but Buena Vista's victory in the 1 3/8-mile Kyoto Kinen enhanced her chances. This was the race won by Admire Moon before his Dubai Duty Free victory in 2006. Moreover, Buena Vista had previously finished second in the Arima Kinen on Dec. 27. That 1 9/16-mile race was won by Heart's Cry before his 2006 Sheema Classic score.

Dubai Duty Free: The Jebel Hatta, the course and distance prep for the Dubai Duty Free, has produced three Duty Free winners in Rhythm Band, Ipi Tombe, and Jay Peg. Presvis and Alexandros finished one-two in this year's Jebel Hatta. Last year, Gladiatorus vaulted from victory in the Al Rashidiya to win the Duty Free. This year, Bankable is hoping to pull off the same double, but this year's Jebel Hatta rates more highly than the Al Rashidiya.

Dubai Golden Shaheen: Kinsale King comes into the Dubai Golden Shaheen off a win in Santa Anita's Palos Verdes Handicap, a race used by Big Jag and Our New Recruit to win the Golden Shaheen when both were run on dirt. Now both races are run on synthetic tracks, so Kinsale King's chances look good, although he would be wise to avoid a speed duel with Rocket Man and Laurel Guerreiro.

UAE Derby: Oddly, it is not the UAE 2000 Guineas that is the most informative prep for the UAE Derby, but the Al Bastakiya. Previous UAE Derby winners who emerged from the Al Bastakiya include Victory Moon, Lundy's Liability, Asiatic Boy, and Honour Devil. Will that history translate into victory for Godolphin's Mendip, who won the Al Bastakiya by 6 1/4 lengths? Or will the Mike de Kock-trained Musir emerge victorious from the UAE 2000 Guineas as Essence of Dubai and Regal Ransom did? Horses trained by de Kock (4) and Saeed bin Suroor (6) have won all 10 runnings of the UAE Derby. Expect more of the same this year.

Godolphin Mile: There is no discernible key race for the Godolphin Mile, but take a long look at Godolphin's Desert Party. He returned off a 10-month layoff to win the six-furlong Mahab Al Shimaal, the course and distance prep for the Golden Shaheen. Also beware of Cat Junior, winner of the one-mile Burj Nahar, in which Grand Emporium finished second in 2005 before winning the Godolphin Mile.

HORSES TO WATCH

Gitano Hernando

Trainer: Marco Botti

Last race: Feb. 27, Lingfield

Finish: 1st by 4 1/2

He is 4 for 4 on synthetic tracks (Polytrack and Pro-Ride) and will have no problem on Tapeta in the World Cup. He beat many of America's better older horses in winning the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita, at which point he was immediately pointed to the World Cup. His prep in the 1 1/4-mile Winter Derby Trial on the Lingfield Polytrack was impressive, and he should improve for that effort. As a 4-year-old, he is still eligible for overall improvement, something that cannot be said of his older rivals. With Kieren Fallon on board, he looks like World Cup night's value play.

Buena Vista

Trainer: Hiroyoshi Matsuda

Last race: Feb. 20, Kyoto

Finish: 1st by 1/2

Never worse than third in 11 career starts, she beat males last time when she won the 1o3/8-mile, Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen. Two months earlier, she narrowly missed against males in the 1o9/16-mile Arima Kinen, one of Japan's most prestigious races. Suited to the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Dubai Sheema Classic, she always finishes strongly. In Dar Re Mi, Eastern Anthem, Jukebox Jury, Spanish Moon, and Youmzain, she is facing horses who are coming off winter-long layoffs.

Mendip

Trainer: Saeed bin Suroor

Last race: March 4, Meydan

Finish: 1st by 6 1/4

Overlooked in America as a Kentucky Derby candidate, this son of Donn Handicap winner Harlan's Holiday has been improving by leaps and bounds in Dubai. A long-legged colt who still has some filling out to do, he scored an eye-catching, 6 1/4-length win in the Al Bastakiya over the UAE Derby course and distance. His third dam, La Chaposa, is the dam of Met Mile and 1 1/8-mile Brooklyn Handicap winner You and I, so there is some class on the female side. Whether he will be able to duplicate his synthetic form on dirt at Churchill Downs remains to be seen.