08/28/2006 11:00PM

Huge meet for Maktoums

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Sheikh Mohammed and his family's stables - Godolphin, Darley, Gainsborough, Zabeel - are racking up wins at the Spa.

As we reach the end of the 2006 Saratoga and Del Mar race meets, here are some observations.

Saratoga is rapidly becoming the second home for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the pro tem ruler of the Thoroughbred racing world.

That may seem a bit of an overstatement, but Sheikh Mohammed and his family-owned racing stables (Godolphin, Darley, Gainsborough, and Zabeel Racing international) were the dominant forces at Saratoga over the Travers weekend, just as they have been on other days at the Spa.

On Friday, Aug. 25, Godolphin's budding superstar, the sparingly raced Discreet Cat, overpowered a field of respectable older rivals to win a seven-furlong allowance sprint with consummate ease in 1:21.53. He scored by 11 lengths in his first start since he soundly defeated the top-class 4-year-old Invasor in the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 25.

Next stop for Discreet Cat will be the Jerome Handicap for 3-year-olds at one mile around one turn at Belmont Park, in which anything less than 128 pounds would severely underestimate his talent. After that, he may have one more race in 2006, the Cigar Mile, as Godolphin continues its ultra-conservative handling of this outstanding performer.

"I don't think we will see him in the Breeders' Cup this year," said assistant trainer Richard Mettee. "He missed more than a month of training after coming here [from Dubai] in May."

On the same Friday card at Saratoga, the Maktoum family sent out the useful 4-year-old filly Balletto under the Darley banner for a second-place finish in the $400,000 Personal Ensign. Another family member sent out the late-developing Paullinus under the Gainsborough Farm banner to a respectable second-place finish in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race that followed his maiden win at Belmont.

On Saturday, Sheikh Mohammed and his relatives had their best day at an American racetrack this year, emphatically winning the $1 million Travers with the increasingly impressive 3-year-old Bernardini by 7 1/2 lengths over a game Bluegrass Cat, who was retired the next day with a hind pastern-bone fracture.

Take nothing away from Bernardini, who controlled the pace and drew away to victory as jockey Javier Castellano pointed the index finger of his right hand in the air inside the furlong pole and aimed it at Bernardini's head at the finish line just in case the crowd and the television audience missed the point.

Frankly, with his Travers win, Bernardini probably displaces Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro as the leading 3-year-old of 2006. At the very least, it would have taken a very big effort by a fully healthy Barbaro to have defeated Bernardini in the Travers, just as it will take a world-class effort to beat this powerful 3-year-old in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in October and/or the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November.

One of the few horses that may have a chance is Invasor, a Maktoum-owned 4-year-old who races under the Shadwell banner and is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who also trains Shadwell's Belmont Stakes winner, Jazil.

After finishing fourth to Discreet Cat in the UAE Derby, Invasor began the Maktoum-owned stables' American invasion by winning three Grade 1 stakes, including the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 5.

The good news is that present plans call for Bernardini and Invasor to meet in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as family members settle amongst themselves which horse may be the best prospect for the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

In addition to the Travers victory, Darley's $1.5 million purchase Incriminate, trained by Eoin Harty, won his career debut over a good group of juvenile colts at six furlongs, and Bedford Falls, a $1.1 million purchase as a yearling in 2004, finished a very close second in a seven-furlong allowance race. And in the two races prior to the Travers, Godolphin's Ashkal Way scored a hard-fought victory over horse-for-course Dreadnaught in the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on the turf, and Henny Hughes, racing for the Maktoum family's Zabeel Racing International, won the prestigious King's Bishop for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.

On Sunday, Aug. 27, there was one more Maktoum horse to guide into the Saratoga winner's circle. Darley's Dubai Escapade ran away and hid from her rivals in the $250,000 Ballerina Stakes at seven furlongs.

So, as we move forward, the Maktoums have Bernardini, Discreet Cat, Invasor, Ashkal Way, Balletto, Dubai Escapade, and the 2-year-old maiden winner Incriminate ready to to make their presence felt at Belmont Park's fall championship meet, just as they dominated so many stakes at the Spa.

Meanwhile, at Del Mar, the track by the Pacific Ocean is set to provide some of its best events of 2006. Despite more than its share of relatively weak fields, the meet has served up many notable performances - think Lava Man, Siren Lure, Arravale, Aragorn, Principle Secret, T.H. Approval, etc.

While Lava Man impressively won the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 20 to complete a sweep of California's three richest races for older horses, T.H. Approval became the first horse in history to win California's three premier marathon turf races: the 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita, the 1 1/2-mile Sunset Handicap at Hollywood, and the 1 3/8-mile Del Mar Handicap on the turf.

For the final five days of its 43-day meeting, beginning Friday, Sept. 1, Del Mar will present 11 of its 42 scheduled stakes, including two on Saturday; two more on Sunday; three on Labor Day Monday; and three more on closing day, Sept. 6.

Island Fashion is the marquee mare in the $200,000 Palomar on Saturday, while on the same card, Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek is scheduled to face older horses in the $100,000 El Cajon at one mile on the turf.

On Sunday, a well-balanced field of 3-year-olds will square off in the $400,000 Del Mar Derby at 1/8 miles on the turf.

On Labor Day Monday, the $250,000 Del Mar Debutante for juvenile fillies will be the main attraction, while the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity, won last year by 2-year-old champion Stevie Wonderboy, will feature the two most impressive 2-year-olds of the meet, the Christopher Paasch-trained Principle Secret and the Dick Mandella-trained Horse Greeley.

Not to be outdone, Saratoga will close its meet with four Grade 1 stakes, the $250,000 Forego at seven furlongs and the $500,000 Woodward on Saturday; the $250,000 Spinaway at seven furlongs for juvenile fillies on Sunday; and the $250,000 Hopeful at the same distance on closing day, Labor Day, Sept. 4.

Amazingly, the only Maktoum horse considered a possible starter in any of these four Grade 1's is the 2-year-old colt Rajaas, who graduated at the meet. He might face three very impressive youngsters in the Hopeful: Circular Quay for Todd Pletcher, Irish Ace for Nick Zito, and Pegasus Wind for D. Wayne Lukas.