03/22/2009 11:00PM

Indian Blessing gets final tune-up


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - It has been eight years since trainer Bob Baffert won his second World Cup with Captain Steve, and 11 years since Baffert won the 1998 edition of the race with Silver Charm. Five years have passed since Baffert has sent a horse to Dubai, and even devoted racing fans will be hard pressed to pluck the name of his most recent starter from memory: During, who checked in sixth in the 2004 Godolphin Mile.

But this year, Baffert is back - not in person, but with one of the stars of Saturday's show, Indian Blessing, who is certain to be favored to win the $2 million Golden Shaheen. The champion 2-year-old filly in 2007 and champion female sprinter last year, Indian Blessing arrived here March 17 and on Monday morning turned in her final work for the Golden Shaheen, going a fast half-mile in about 47.80 seconds.

With major Kentucky Derby contender Pioneerof the Nile training toward a start in the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert sent assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes to Dubai to supervise Indian Blessing's preparations for the Golden Shaheen, run at six furlongs on a straight course. Baffert, however, got as close to Monday's workout as a person almost 9,000 miles away could be.

"I had him on speaker phone for the work," Barnes said. "Bob, he wants to be informed. It's hard not being here."

Barnes's job was to watch and time Indian Blessing's work while relaying fractional splits to Baffert, who, if displeased with the development of the drill, could then call to Barnes to relay via walkie-talkie further instruction to Indian Blessing's rider, Janell Gruss. Such complex long-distance interaction proved unnecessary: Indian Blessing went off smoothly, hit the right pace without having to be asked, and breezed briskly through the finish wire.

"She went really well," Barnes said. "She's had no problems coming over. She eats really well and she's been all over the country before, to both coasts, to Fair Grounds."

Best of all, Indian Blessing is back on dirt now. Her two most recent starts came on synthetic tracks in California, and though both were fine - a win in the Dec. 27 La Brea and a second in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint - Indian Blessing has won 5 of 7 dirt starts and is unbeaten in dirt races shorter than one mile.

"I think she's several lengths better on dirt," Barnes said.

And those several lengths would make Indian Blessing all but invincible in the Golden Shaheen.

Well Armed tries again in World Cup

He was bred and born in Kentucky and raced for a year in England. Since autumn 2007, Well Armed has spent most of his days training in Southern California. But there is something about sand, heat, and a hot wind that seems to bring out the best in Well Armed. The horse seems to thrive in Dubai and just missed finishing second in the 2008 World Cup. Well Armed is back in business again this spring.

"For whatever reason, he seems to do really well here," said trainer Eoin Harty, who watched Well Armed breeze a half-mile in 49 seconds under jockey Aaron Gryder on Monday morning, his final serious exercise for another try in the World Cup.

After a busy and modestly successful 2-year-old campaign in England, Well Armed spent the winter here and won a race over the Nad al Sheba dirt track before disappointing in Discreet Cat's 2006 UAE Derby. Imported thereafter to the United States, Well Armed returned from an 18-month break and rose through the Southern California handicap ranks, winning the San Antonio Handicap before his trip in the World Cup, where he set the pace before being run over by Curlin in the race's final quarter-mile.

Harty said a return World Cup run has been in the works since not long after last year's race, and Well Armed arrives here on the same winter racing pattern as last year, with recent starts in the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps at Santa Anita. Though Well Armed had a second and a win in those two races last year and was fourth and second this year, Harty feels Well Armed might actually be a better horse this time around.

"He's more relaxed now," Harty said. "At first, he wanted to do everything in a hurry."

Local jockey lands World Cup Day mounts

Jockey Ahmed Ajtebi's unique career path has taken another turn to the good: the 27-year-old rider has landed mounts in six of the seven races on the Dubai World Cup program.

Ashtebi is a native of Dubai, the first professional rider from the emirate, and with the help of backers as powerful as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Ashtebi has carved out a niche on the local circuit, at least. Ashtebi rode one winner here in 2004-2005 but was among leading riders in the UAE this winter. Ashtebi went to a jockey's school in Ireland, rode as an apprentice for trainer Mike de Kock in South Africa, and has ridden in races all over the region. Last summer, he rode in England for the first time and won a race at the prestigious Ascot meeting.

More an Arabian rider earlier in his career, Ashtebi has become a staple of local Thoroughbred races - though merely riding horses diverges strongly from Ashtebi's first career. For eight years, beginning at age 7, Ashtebi rode camel races over distances as long as 6 1/2 miles.

"The only similarity is four legs," Ajtebi told the English paper The Telegraph last summer. "The saddles are different, you have no irons, you have one rein and a long camel stick, which you use to try and keep it straight."

Ashtebi, meanwhile, has ridden straight into the $6 million Dubai World Cup, where he has the mount on longshot Happy Boy for trainer Mubarak bin Shafya, a former trainer of endurance racers for Sheikh Mohammed.