03/03/2005 1:00AM

Ex-U.S. absentees return

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Six course and distance preps for Dubai World Cup Night on March 26 will be run Saturday at Nad Al Sheba on what is billed as "Super Saturday."

Prime among the races, worth a total of $1.25 million, is the 1 1/4-mile Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge, a Grade 2, $300,000 World Cup prep highlighted by South African champion Yard-Arm and last October's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe runner-up, Cherry Mix.

Each will be making his first start on dirt. The Mike de Kock-trained Yard-Arm is coming off a narrow victory in the one-mile Group 3 Al Fahidi Fort on turf on Feb. 11. A four-time Group 1 winner in his native South Africa, Yard-Arm will be ridden by Weichong Marwing. Cherry Mix, just outgamed by Bago in the Arc, was switched by Sheikh Mohammed from Andre Fabre to Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor soon thereafter. By Linamix out of the Quiet American mare Cherry Moon, Cherry Mix will be ridden for the first time by Frankie Dettori.

Challenging those two in their seasonal debuts are a pair of long unsighted ex-Americans. Godolphin's Grand Hombre, winner of the 2003 Pennsylvania Derby, has been absent since finishing fourth in last year's Dubai World Cup, while Ruler's Court, 14-length winner of the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita in his last start in October 2003, will be saddled for Sheikh Mohammed by local trainer Ismail Mohammed.

The $150,000 Al Bastikiya is the final major prep for the 1 1/8-mile UAE Derby. British trainer Clive Brittain has Kentucky Derby nominees Kandidate and Tony James in the lineup. Dubai Dreamer, nominated to the Triple Crown by Godolphin, will run in the colors of Sheikh Mohammed's Jordanian wife, Princess Haya, suggesting that he is not held in high regard.

Durban Thunder would have started favorite but was scratched Thursday due to a fever. A Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old, Durban Thunder was transferred by Stud Raca from Brazil to Ken McPeek in the fall. He won the Group 1 Grande Premio Joao Adhemar de Almeida Prado by six lengths and has been working well at Palm Meadows in Florida since late December. He could be in the same league as last year's UAE Derby winner, Lundy's Liability, but, says McPeek, "I will not rush things to get him into the UAE Derby."

Local favorite Conroy goes in search of his fourth straight win in the $200,000 Mahab Al Shimaal, a six-furlong Group 3 prep for the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Third in last year's Golden Shaheen, Conroy looked sharp last time taking a six-furlong handicap by 3 1/2 lengths from Estimraar, who also runs Saturday.

The Group 3, $200,000 Dubai City of Gold, a 1 1/2-mile turf prep for the Dubai Sheema Classic, shapes up as a duel between Tycoon and Grey's Inn. Third in the Irish Derby, the St. Leger, and the Turf Classic, Tycoon is now trained by leading UAE conditioner Mazin Al Kurdi. The Mike de Kock-trained Grey's Inn, winner of South Africa's premier event, the 1 3/8-mile Durban July Handicap, was recently fourth over a mile in the Al Fahidi Fort.

The Group 3, 250,000 Jebel Hatta, the 1 1/8-mile prep for the Dubai Duty Free, is headed by one of last year's Duty Free dead-heat winners, the de Kock-trained Right Approach, and the Marcus Tregoning-trained Alkaadhem. In the $150,000 Burj Nahaar, a test for the Godolphin Mile, Grand Emporium and Jack Sullivan, winners of Round 1 and Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge, meet defending Burj Nahaar champ Cherry Pickings.