03/24/2016 1:50PM

Fillies Polar River, Vale Dori prime players in UAE Derby

Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Polar River is favored to win the UAE Derby, but is not being considered for a start against males in the Kentucky Derby.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Girl power could hold sway in the $1 million UAE Derby, where the 3-year-old filly Polar River will be heavily favored and the main chance at an upset comes from another filly, the Argentine-bred Vale Dori. One filly has won this race, Khawlah in 2011.

The UAE Derby is a major qualifier for the Kentucky Derby, offering 170 points distributed 100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers. Those points may go unused. The American-based Frank Conversation would probably have Derby designs, and the Japanese horse Lani – the only one of the three Japanese runners actually nominated to the Triple Crown – would go to Kentucky if possible.

There’s no chance that Polar River’s connections would give the Derby a look, but the Kentucky Oaks hasn’t been entirely ruled out if she wins well Saturday, and trainer Doug Watson thinks it’s in the filly’s interest to head stateside at some point this spring.

Polar River, an American-bred by Congrats, debuted in December and has won her four starts by more than 30 lengths combined. All came on dirt, and Watson doesn’t believe European turf racing would suit Polar River.

He does, however, have no doubt that Polar River can handle the 1 3/16-mile distance she gets Saturday night. Stretched beyond one mile for the first time March 3 in the UAE Oaks, Polar River appeared to waver late at this trip, a commanding midstretch lead whittled to three-quarters of a length at the finish by Vale Dori. But Polar River’s preparation for the UAE Oaks went poorly on several fronts, and Watson strongly believes she’ll be back to her previously dominant form with a smoother lead-in to the UAE Derby.

“I was working her in company last fall, and she got so good I had to stop working her with anything else in my barn,” Watson said. “After she ran the first time, we knew we had something. I started to get progressively more nervous because I knew I was the only one who could screw it up.”

Vale Dori, a 4-year-old on Northern Hemisphere time, is a daughter of Asiatic Boy, perhaps the best UAE Derby winner ever, capturing the race in 2007 for Vale Dori’s trainer, Mike de Kock. Vale Dori, imported last year from Argentina, took some time to come right this winter, and the Oaks was her first start in about 10 months.

“I would believe she’s improved on that,” de Kock said. “You’ve always got to be a little scared of the bounce, but she had a lot of grounding going into that race.”

Frank Conversation, trained by Doug O’Neill, won the El Camino Real Derby on Golden Gate’s synthetic surface last out but ran well below that form in his lone dirt start.

Start key for Marking

Marking, the favorite for the $1 million Godolphin Mile, is a bad gate horse, plain and simple. It was so bad in his first start this winter at Meydan that Marking’s stumble out of the gate tossed jockey James Doyle to the dirt. William Buick managed to stay on when Marking ran back and won easily Feb. 25, and Doyle, with the mount again Saturday, is on the horse to beat – provided he’s on a horse who breaks.

Marking was considered for the Golden Shaheen, but that six-furlong race provided less margin for error.

“This gives him more time to recover if he hops,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He wants a mile or more with his pedigree.”

Doug Watson trains three of the Mile’s 10 runners and thinks all of them – One Man Band, Cool Cowboy, and Faulkner – have a chance. One Man Band is a one-way speed horse who will be sent from the rail, while Cool Cowboy has improved since being stretched out from six- and seven-furlong races.

French strong in Gold Cup

Vazirabad is the strong favorite to win the $1 million Gold Cup over two miles on turf, and his fellow French shipper, Manatee, might be the horse with the best chance at an upset.

Vazirabad, trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre, only debuted last May but improved steadily through the year, winning his last five races, including a season-ending score in the Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak over 110 yards less than the Gold Cup trip. He races without the benefit of a prep, but de Royer-Dupre has a deft hand with such layoff runners.

Manatee, from trainer Andre Fabre, wasn’t at his best when Vazirabad handled him in the Royal-Oak, and he had the benefit of a Polytrack prep March 3 at Chantilly.

The English horse Big Orange, who likes firm ground and could lead Saturday, is the other obvious contender. He won the Group 2 Goodwood Cup at this distance last summer and ended his season with a fine fifth of 24 in the Melbourne Cup.