03/22/2017 1:40PM

Hovdey: Dubai World Cup has been distinctly American


They have done everything but chisel Arrogate’s name over the entrance to Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, so certain is his coronation Saturday night in the $10 million World Cup. Still, foregone conclusions are a bore, so let’s run the race and see.

Even with its five-year diversion to a Tapeta surface, the Dubai World Cup has been considered a legitimate satellite event of the U.S. season, with a heavy gravitational pull. Should Arrogate win this 22nd running of the Dubai World Cup for Bob Baffert and Juddmonte Farms, he would join a handsome list of 10 horses trained in the United States to capture what had been, until this year, the richest race in the world.

And make no mistake – it takes a very good American horse to win in Dubai, which means Arrogate should fit right in. The 10 Americans have to their collective credit three Kentucky Derbies, four Breeders’ Cup Classics, and seven titles as Horse of the Year. They are arranged here in no particular order, unless you believe in saving the best for last.

One year ago, somewhere around the final turn at Meydan, Victor Espinoza fought back a mild wave of panic as he felt California Chrome’s saddle slipping perilously astern.

“I wasn’t that worried,” Espinoza said after California Chrome went on to win by nearly four lengths. “I just kept looking forward and thinking, ‘Where’s the wire?’ ”

Espinoza’s amazing grace under fire is validated by the winning photo. That is not girth holding down the saddle. It’s a bucking strap.

Roses in May was much the best of the 2005 World Cup field, and it figured. In his two previous starts, he had finished second to Ghostzapper and Saint Liam, both good enough to be Horse of the Year.

But neither of them was in Dubai, which left the race to Roses in May and his jubilant owner, Ken Ramsey, who grabbed the shank and led his horse into the walking ring to commence the post-race ceremonies. Roses in May, still charged from his efforts, thrashed his head, knocked Ramsey’s glasses askew, and opened a cut above the owner’s temple. To date, Ramsey remains the only winner of the World Cup to accept the trophy while bleeding.

There is always something special about a Kentucky Derby winner traveling abroad as ambassador to the quality of the American game. California Chrome came through, as did Animal Kingdom in 2013 for trainer Graham Motion, Team Valor, and their Australian partners.

Baffert won the 1998 World Cup with 1997 Derby hero Silver Charm, who turned back successive challenges from Malek, Loup Savage, and finally Swain to win by a nose. In 2001, Baffert won again with Captain Steve, who beat the surprising Japanese mare To the Victory.

Since then, the trainer has tried to win another World Cup with the likes of Game On Dude and Richard’s Kid, but his most memorable trip came in 2012, when he suffered a heart attack. This year’s race marks Baffert’s return to Dubai since that experience.

Although his heart held up, Richard Mandella suffered through years of World Cup frustration with Soul of the Matter (second in 1996), Siphon and Sandpit (second and third in 1997), and Malek (second in 1999) before finally breaking through in 2004 with Pleasantly Perfect.

“I figured I’d keep trying till I got it right,” Mandella said in the flush of victory.

No horse got it righter than Well Armed, who won the 2009 World Cup by 14 lengths for WinStar Farm and trainer Eoin Harty. Well Armed was a good horse back home, with wins in the San Diego, San Antonio, and Goodwood, and he had been third to fellow American Curlin in the 2008 World Cup.

“It was probably the best race of Curlin’s life, and we had to be there,” said Jake Vinci, Harty’s assistant, after Well Armed won. “But that’s all right because as soon as that was over, we were planning for this year.”

Curlin was the reigning Horse of the Year when he won his World Cup. So was Invasor, that most international of World Cup winners, who was bred in Uruguay, owned by Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stable, and won all six of his races for Kentucky’s Kiaran McLaughlin.

But it was 1995 Horse of the Year Cigar who put the Dubai World Cup on the map with a flourish. Despite a dicey foot that had interrupted his training, the American champ showed up for the first running in 1996 after an 18-hour trip, only to be greeted by rainy weather and a decidedly foreign sandy track.

The storms cleared by the day of the race, and as Cigar made his way to the Nad Al Sheba saddling enclosure at sunset, on either side of the path Sudanese Muslims knelt in their scheduled prayer. No one could convince this Western witness the gesture was not meant at least in part for Cigar.

A short while later, after Cigar outlasted Soul of the Matter to win by half a length, British journalist Brough Scott branded the first World Cup forever.

“The great ones come through, and the best of sport is always unscripted drama,” Scott said. “There was Cigar, first past the winning post, under the light of a desert moon, and beating horses from all over the world.”

And now there is Arrogate.