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Early arrival trending positively for World Cup hopefuls
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – So famous was Cigar in 1996 that the Associated Press sent out a fairly detailed news story the day after the horse touched down in Dubai, where he would race in the inaugural Dubai World Cup.
“Cigar, the spectacular Thoroughbred looking to extend his winning streak to 14 races, arrived in Dubai on Monday, completing a 16 1/2-hour trip from Florida to the Persian Gulf.”
Monday was March 19. The first World Cup was contested on a Wednesday, March 28. That’s less than 10 days to adjust to an eight-hour time shift, to recalibrate circadian rhythms, and to establish a morning routine in a strange barn in a strange land, where everything is different.
Cigar won that World Cup, and the next five U.S.-based World Cup winners all traveled on a similar schedule. But in 2008, owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen broke new ground with Curlin, who went to Dubai six weeks before the World Cup, used a handicap race as his prep for the big dance, came away with a 7 3/4-length victory, and spawned, from the look of this year’s contingent, a delayed trend in shipping American horses for the World Cup.
There are five Americans set to contest the 21st World Cup, now a $10 million race, on Saturday night, and three of them have put down at least shallow roots by now on the Arabian peninsula. Frosted has been in Dubai since Jan. 24, and he won Round 2 of the Al Maktoum Challenge on Feb. 4 in his World Cup prep. Keen Ice arrived in late February, was a disappointing seventh in Round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge, but will try to rebound in the World Cup. And then there is California Chrome. The 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner shipped a little less than two weeks before he finished second in the 2015 World Cup, but his camp hatched a different plan this year.
“I thought I wanted to follow the pattern of Curlin – come early and run early,” said trainer Art Sherman.
California Chrome arrived in Dubai on Jan. 23, a couple of weeks earlier than Curlin did in 2008, but the two horses ran in the same race, a 2,000-meter dirt handicap six weeks out from the World Cup.
“I think it’s a big benefit to get acclimated and run over the racetrack,” Sherman said. “Timing was everything this year.”
For Asmussen, the break with the established shipping schedule – a plan hatched in concert with Jackson, George Bolton (a part-owner of Curlin at the time), and racing adviser John Moynihan – offered far more reward than risk.
“He was a horse that always benefited from being somewhere,” Asmussen said. “He’d benefit from the trip over the course, and being over there, settled in for six or seven weeks, it allowed for more horse coming back to finish off the year. He won three Grade 1s after he came back.”
It’s a radical regimen, though, this weeks-long venture to the Middle East. Trainers regularly run satellite strings, but six weeks or two months is a long time for a horseman to spend away from a stable star on the other side of the globe.
It’s Sherman’s son Alan who has been overseeing California Chrome’s care in Dubai. Frosted’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, has entrusted his horse to his brother Neal, while Keen Ice has Tammy Fox, trainer Dale Romans’s longtime partner, as an exercise rider and de facto trainer in Dubai. Asmussen entrusted Curlin, who had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap off a spectacular 2007 campaign, to his longtime assistant Scott Blasi and exercise rider Carlos Rosas.
“Scott and Carlos had been with him every day, and it was very important to keep him in a rhythm that we’d had success with in the past,” said Asmussen. “You settle in, you make the adjustments to weight, diet, exercise. You try to get very comfortable with what is the norm.”
Curlin, though, made things easy on his handlers.
“Curlin was just a very special horse with everything he did,” Blasi said. “I remember being in quarantine the first three days, waiting for blood work to come back, and I remember telling the vet, ‘We got to get that blood work back today. I have to train this horse.’ He was feeling that good. He just fell right into it, but I felt like crap. I was up at night, every night. The best sleep I’d get was from 11 [a.m.] to 3 before I went back to the barn in the afternoon.”
Neal McLaughlin has been looking after several horses who shipped along with Frosted, but Fox and Alan Sherman now are approaching the end of a long job composed of caring for a single horse. It’s a massive shift for people accustomed to the barely controlled chaos of working with a large string of racehorses at an American track.
“For six weeks, I groomed him, Carlos rode him, and that was it,” Blasi said. “You go from running a barn full of 50 head and then having one horse – it’s a shock.”
Blasi has seen photos and videos of California Chrome this winter; they remind him of the way Curlin looked in 2008 – gleaming coat, rippling muscles, strong works.
“I think it’s going to be beneficial for him this way,” Art Sherman said. “We’ll see how he pulls up after the race. Either way, he’s going to get some R and R in Kentucky, just unwind and get ready for the second half of the year.”
Frosted is having a different experience than the other early arrivals. He’s owned by Godolphin, and instead of shipping into the quarantine facility at Meydan, like Curlin, California Chrome, and Keen Ice, Frosted did his quarantine and has done all his training at Godolphin’s Marmoom training center.
“In talking with [Godolphin chief executive] John Ferguson, who in turn might have talked to Sheikh Mohammed, they thought maybe it was a great idea to get a race under Frosted’s belt on that racetrack, and we agreed,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, who, when he won the World Cup with Invasor, shipped 12 days out from the race. “We were happy to go over early, and it was just good to get over there and be there, be settled in and be acclimated. There are a lot of variables: a new track, no meds. We sent over four horses, and their eating habits were off for a day or two because of all the travel, but they soon were eating great and all settled in. It’s worked out well.”
What to do, though, with an early arrival who performs poorly in his Dubai prep race? “We could have flown him back to America, I suppose,” said McLaughlin.
The Keen Ice camp faced that very question after its horse finished seventh on March 4, but Keen Ice, closer to the pace than usual, ran wide on a track surface that appeared to promote horses racing near the rail. Jerry Crawford, president of Donegal Racing, hoped the performance could be chalked up to circumstances and wasted little time deciding to push forward to the World Cup.
For the connections of the other two early arrivals, California Chrome and Frosted, the big night suddenly looms large after a long winter wait in the desert. They can only hope their journey ends the same way it did for Blasi and Rojas, who came bounding to the winner’s circle at the old Nad Al Sheba track looking as happy as humans can appear.
Said Blasi, “When it was all over, it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had with a horse.”