03/27/2009 11:00PM

Gladiatorus brings obscure pair into spotlight

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - About 20 kilometers out into the deserts of Dubai sits a training center called Marmoon, where a man named Mubarak bin Shafya trains 40 Thoroughbreds. Never heard the name? No one in Thoroughbred racing circles had until this winter, because bin Shafya never had trained Thoroughbreds until this winter.

How about the jockey Ahmad Ajtebi? That one ring a bell? Certainly not to Americans, and probably not to most Europeans, either. Like bin Shafya, Ajtebi is a native of Dubai, and like bin Shafya, he never had participated in a single race on a World Cup card. Until Saturday, that is. And on Saturday, bin Shafya and Ajtebi - a former camel rider - teamed up to win two $5 million turf races in quick succession, striking first with Gladiatorus in the $5 million Duty Free before Eastern Anthem came back 40 minutes later to win the $5 million Sheema Classic.

Ajtebi still is considered an apprentice outside the UAE, and rode in England for the first time last summer, winning a race at Ascot. Bin Shafya has ridden local endurance horses that perform in long-distance races across the desert, and trains endurance horses alongside the Thoroughbreds over Marmoon's synthetic-surface track. But a much more familiar name lurks just beneath the surface of the two surprise winners: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

It's Sheikh Mohammed's endurance horses that bin Shafya has trained, and it was Sheikh Mohammed who gave him the Thoroughbreds to train this year. And while Gladiatorus is owned by Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohd al-Maktoum, that is one of Sheikh Mohammed's sons. Another son, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohd al-Maktoum, owns Sheema Classic winner Eastern Anthem, and Sheikh Mohammed has been closely involved with both horses.

Racing in Italy during 2007, Gladiatorus - a 4-year-old Silic colt who fetched an auction bid of just $8,000 as a yearling - was a good 2-year-old, winning six races and finishing a close second in the Group 1 Gran Criterium in his final start that year. But after being purchased by Godolphin, Gladiatorus missed all of 2008, and the horse had not raced in more than a year when he made his first start for bin Shafya this winter. He won the Jaguar Trophy in his comeback race, setting a course record for 7 1/2 furlongs, and had been equally impressive taking the Feb. 19 Al Fahidi Fort by almost six lengths.

"When I first trained this horse, we knew he was a class horse," said bin Shafya.

The Duty Free marked Gladiatorus's first start beyond a mile and a serious step up in class; he met 10 Group 1 or Grade 1 winners. But none of them got close to him. Vodka actually broke on top, but Ajtebi quickly sent Gladiatorus through for the lead, and he opened up by as much as five or six lengths around the far turn. Vodka was chasing, as were last year's winner Jay Peg and the well-regarded Archipenko, but the pace was swift, and the chasers all stopped as the leader ran on. Presvis, who dropped straight back to last after breaking from post 16, rallied explosively through traffic to finish second, with late-running Alexandros third, but Gladiatorus had won by 3 1/2 lengths, running 1,777 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) in 1:46.82. He paid $30.40 in the United States.

A major win for the home folks.