02/05/2010 12:00AM

Godolphin still faces uphill battle

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Barbara D. Livingston
Godolphin's top prospect Vale of York faces the difficult task of prepping for the Kentucky Derby on dirt by racing on Tapeta overseas.

NEW YORK - With Nad Al Sheba gone with the wind, replaced by the glittery new Meydan, has Godolphin been forced into an untenable situation vis-a-vis the burning issue in racing today, stuck as we are between the rock that is dirt and the hard place that is synthetics?

For more than a decade Godolphin insisted in preparing its Kentucky Derby hopefuls on the Nad Al Sheba dirt track. Without success as it turned out. The closest the boys in blue came to winning the Run for the Roses was China Visit's sixth in 2000. Now that they must prepare their future American contingent on Meydan's Tapeta surface, one wonders if Sheikh Mohammed isn't de-emphasizing the Kentucky Derby.

Preparing horses in Dubai on synthetics is nothing new for Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor. Godolphin's Al Quoz training track has had a Tapeta surface for years, but now the horses must race on the same surface at Meydan. The old main track at Nad Al Sheba was customized to resemble the dirt surface at Churchill Downs. In Meydan, Godolphin now has itself a track that resembles Belmont Park in its configuration, but with a Tapeta surface more suitable to preparing horses for races in Southern California, Keeneland, or Arlington.

Godolphin has had rather extraordinary success at Belmont in recent years on dirt. The stable's Grade 1 winners on Big Sandy include Cocoa Beach, Discreet Cat, Flashing, Imperial Gesture, Jilbab, Music Note, Seventh Street, and Stellar Jayne. In addition, Music Note, Pyro, Street Cry, and Vineyard Haven have landed Grade 1 races elsewhere on dirt, but among its American trainees only Gayego in last year's Ancient Title at Santa Anita has been successful at the highest level for Godolphin on a synthetic track.

Training on Tapeta at Al Quoz never did Godolphin any harm at Belmont, so perhaps a few races on the same surface at Meydan will not have a deleterious effect this year. But if any of the Godolphin horses distinguish themselves on the synthetic Meydan track, a few trips to Keeneland or even Hollywood and Del Mar may be in order.

As for the Kentucky Derby, Godolphin has high hopes for its Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vale of York. An Irish-bred son of Invincible Spirit, Vale of York is penciled in for the one-mile UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 18 and the UAE Derby, which has had its distance increased from 1 1/8 miles to 1 3/16 miles this year, on World Cup Night, March 27. If he makes it to Churchill Downs, Vale of York will be faced with the doubly difficult task of traveling from Dubai to Kentucky and overcoming the synthetic to dirt bugaboo.

For American horses being considered for a run in any of the big non-turf races on World Cup Night, their problem is largely the opposite. In the past, the Donn Handicap was the key Dubai World Cup prep as both races were run on dirt. Now the attention will shift to the San Antonio Handicap and the Big Cap at Santa Anita. Gio Ponti, meanwhile, will follow a route similar to that of European turfers such as Raven's Pass and Vale of York, both of whom handled the turf-to-synthetic switch in their Breeders' Cup victories. Gio Ponti nearly managed the same when finishing second to Zenyatta in the BC Classic. He will take a similar route toward Meydan when tackling the Tampa Bay turf course in the Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 20.

The first five favorites for the World Cup - Gio Ponti, Twice Over, Vision d'Etat, Presvis, and Vodka - are all confirmed turf runners, a circumstance that casts further doubt on the direction that American racing has been taking of late. To paraphrase Julius Caesar, "All of American racing is divided into three parts," dirt, synthetics, and turf. His point in making that three-part reference to Gaul was that the country which would later become France was therefore easily conquerable.

With Santa Anita contemplating a switch back to dirt, the American situation only becomes more complicated. If Santa Anita does return to dirt, what are Southern California horsemen to do when faced with having to switch from synthetics to dirt and back again with every meeting?

At least in Britain, France, and Ireland, all of the non-turf racing is on synthetic courses, and very little of it is high-end stuff: three Group 3's in Britain, one in Ireland, and fewer than 20 listed races among the three countries. And from either synthetics or turf, European horses can make the relatively straightforward switch to similar surfaces at Meydan, just as they did at Santa Anita for each of the last two Breeders' Cups.