Updated on 09/17/2011 10:10AM

Harlan's on shaky ground

Carrie Devorah
Grandera (right) breezes at Nad Al Sheba in preparation for the Dubai World Cup.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Harlan's Holiday faces a difficult task Saturday night against three Maktoum-controlled turf stars in the eighth renewal of the world's richest race, the $6 million at Nad Al Sheba.

A victory by Harlan's Holiday would pull the United States even with Godolphin in World Cup wins at four apiece.

But there are reasons for concern. First is the possibility that Harlan's Holiday cannot stay the World Cup distance of 1 1/4 miles. Second is his wide post of 10 in an 11-horse field. And third is the possibility that the Maktoum runners - Nayef, Moon Ballad, or Grandera - might prove to be just as good on dirt as they are on turf. Nayef is favored by European bookmakers.

The World Cup is the centerpiece of a six-race $15.25 million program, the richest in Thoroughbred racing and a showcase for the Maktoums, the ruling family of Dubai. Two members of the Maktoum family, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Maktoum, own the powerful Godolphin stable.

As many as 13 American-based horses will be competing, including five in the Godolphin Mile and four in the Golden Shaheen sprint. It is the strongest American presence so far, something of a surprise considering the war in Iraq is only about 500 miles away, across the Persian Gulf.

Post time for the World Cup is 9:40 p.m. in Dubai, or 12:40 p.m. Eastern in the United States. North American outlets will be taking bets on as many as four of the races - the Sheema Classic (1 1/2 miles on turf), the Golden Shaheen (six furlongs), the Duty Free (1 1/8 miles on turf), and the World Cup.

Harlan's Holiday, the Donn Handicap winner, is trying to follow in the footsteps of three previous American winners - Cigar, Silver Charm, and Captain Steve.

"He likes to run on the outside," trainer Todd Pletcher said Thursday morning, "and I believe he will stay the distance. In the Kentucky Derby last year he got trapped very wide. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup he was a very game third. And in the Breeders' Cup Classic he simply didn't run at all. It wouldn't have mattered if the race had been six furlongs or two miles, he wasn't going to win that day."

Nayef, trained by British-based Marcus Tregoning for Hamdan Al Maktoum, is a two-time Group 1 winner going 10 furlongs on turf. Winner of last year's 1 1/2-mile Dubai Sheema Classic on turf, he is by 1997 World Cup winner Singspiel, so there is hope in the Tregoning camp that he will handle dirt. Nayef has been training at Nad Al Sheba since December, but he has not run since taking the Juddmonte International on Aug. 20.

Moon Ballad, the riding choice of Frankie Dettori, is a two-time winner on dirt at Nad Al Sheba, but he finished only fourth behind Essence of Dubai in last year's UAE Derby. He is taking a big step up in class over his Feb. 13 score in Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge and, though greatly improved since last spring, he may find the World Cup his toughest assignment.

While undoubtedly high class, Grandera has always given the impression that he is not quite among international racing's elite. A difficult horse to handle, the 5-year-old Grandera could prove a handful for Jamie Spencer, who rides him for the first time.

So holes can be shot in the chances of each of the four favorites. However, with proven superiority on dirt, there must be a mild preference for Harlan's Holiday. Nayef, who has been pointed to the World Cup since autumn, should pose the biggest threat.

Surprisingly, it is two Saudi Arabian-trained horses who hold the best chances of an upset. Grundlefoot, who won Pimlico's Baltimore Breeder's Cup Handicap last June, was a fast-closing second behind Grandera in Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge over the World Cup distance on March 8. Sei Mi was fifth behind Captain Steve in the 2001 World Cup, and he has finished second in his last six starts dating back to his distant runner-up placing behind Street Cry in last year's race.

Trainer Elie Lellouche is high on Aquarelliste, the mare who prepped well with a victory in the Group 3 Prix Exbury three weeks ago at Saint-Cloud. Winner of the 2001 French Oaks, Aquarelliste is highly questionable in her first try on dirt. Blue Burner, technically trained by Bill Mott but being prepared in Dubai by Kevin McAuliffe, appears in deep, as do the outsiders State Shinto, Crimson Quest, and Hans Anderson.

Because of the war in Iraq, security will be high at Nad Al Sheba throughout Saturday afternoon and into the evening as fans arrive at the desert track. Temperatures are expected to be a pleasant 72 degrees by the start of the Dubai World Cup. Because of heavy security, the World Cup Committee isn't estimating the size of the crowd expected to congregate at the track, which is only a 20-minute drive from central Dubai.

But Julio Canani, who will saddle Cayoke in the Godolphin Mile, summed up the atmosphere at Nad Al Sheba this week when he said on Thursday morning, "Dubai is like a sanctuary."