03/22/2009 11:00PM

Fortunes await in the desert

Bob Coglianese
Albertus Maximus, pictured winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream in January, is preparing for the $6 million Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - "Widespread dust."

That was the weather forecast for the emirate of Dubai on Monday, and during morning training hours at Nad Al Sheba, the wind whipped up that dust so thickly that one could barely make out the other side of the racetrack. It was mirage-like, all right, and seeing horse forms gallop out of the dust it almost was possible to imagine one into the mighty Curlin. This time last year, Curlin had been in Dubai for five weeks, and all the anticipation built up during his stay came bursting forth in a memorable victory.

Alas, those dust-battered horses Monday were only shadows of Curlin, and the field of 14 pre-entered Monday for Saturday's 14th World Cup lacks a standout of his stature.

Not that one could complain about the overall scope of the pre-entries for Saturday's six Thoroughbred races (an Arabian stakes starts out the World Cup card), which offer combined purses worth $21 million. A total of 85 horses were pre-entered, and once again, the $6 million World Cup's supporting turf features, the $5 million Sheema Classic and $5 million Duty Free, drew stellar fields. Final fields for all six races will be drawn and post positions assigned on Wednesday night.

Where Curlin towered over the 2008 World Cup, three horses might stand slightly above the rest this year: Albertus Maximus, Asiatic Boy, and Well Armed. Albertus Maximus won the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile to end his 2008 campaign, and won the Grade 1 Donn to start his 2009 season. The Donn is a proven World Cup prep race, and trainer Kiaran McLauglin won the 2007 World Cup with Invasor, a horse owned - like Albertus Maximus - by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Asiatic Boy finished second to Curlin in the 2008 World Cup, and has been pointed to this renewal ever since. Just behind him a year ago was Well Armed, whose connections also circled March 28 on their calendar many months ago.

Casino Drive, the Japanese colt who twice started in the U.S. last year, also is among the pre-entries, as are two other Americans, Anak Nakal and Arson Squad. The other horses pre-entered in the World Cup are based either in Dubai or Saudi Arabia. In all, 12 U.S.-based horses are here for Saturday's races.

The $5 million Sheema Classic, at about 1 1/2 miles on turf, got 15 pre-entries, and looks extremely competitive. World travelers Doctor Dino, Purple Moon, and Quijano should attract support, Youmzain is one of the richest horses in training, and four of the pre-entries reside in the local yard of trainer Mike de Kock, who could have a tremendous night if Asiatic Boy comes through in the World Cup. The Americans in the Sheema Classic are Marsh Side and Red Rocks, though Red Rocks was based in Europe until last year.

The field for the $5 million Duty Free at about 1 1/8 miles on turf includes last year's upset winner, Jay Peg. Highly regarded Paco Boy is in from France, while de Kock has major player Archipenko for this race. The two American horses are Kip Deville and Hyperbaric.

Indian Blessing has the best chance of any U.S. horse, and heads the 12 pre-entries in the six-furlong Golden Shaheen. But the Americans are surprisingly iffy this year in the Godolphin Mile, another dirt race, with the Doug O'Neill-trained Informed the only U.S.-based horse in the race.

Desert Party should be an overwhelming favorite for Godolphin in the UAE Derby, contested at about nine furlongs on dirt.

Weather could be a World Cup factor this year, with rain forecast as possible both Friday and Saturday.