03/06/2014 3:14PM

Meydan: De Kock loaded for Saturday's Dubai World Cup prep races

Neville Hopwood
Soft Falling Rain likely will be a heavy favorite from post 14 in the Mahab al Shimaal at six furlongs on the Tapeta main track Saturday.

The growing influence of South African racehorses in Dubai has never been more evident than on the Super Saturday program at Meydan, where South African-breds are entered in all seven of the Thoroughbred stakes and should be favored to win four of them.

The undefeated Vercingetorix figures to be the center of attention in the Jebel Hatta, while Variety Club, a two-time South African Horse of the Year, will try to win his second race of the Dubai World Cup Carnival in the Burj Nahaar. Shea Shea, the leading turf sprinter in Dubai, races in the Meydan Sprint, and Soft Falling Rain should be a strong choice in the Mahab Al Shimaal.

Mike de Kock, South Africa’s leading trainer, will saddle Vercingetorix, Shea Shea, and Soft Falling Rain, while Joey Ramsden, a Dubai newcomer, handles Variety Club.

Heavy Metal, another South African de Kock charge, has failed to show anything close to his best in his two starts this winter in Dubai but still has a chance to rebound in the City of Gold Stakes. And there are three more South African-breds, two for De Kock, in what appears to be a wide-open edition of the card’s nominal feature, the Group 1, $400,000 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3.

The Thoroughbred portion of the Super Saturday card, filled with preparatory heats for races on the March 29 Dubai World Cup program, starts at 8:10 a.m. Eastern. That’s 5:10 p.m. in Dubai, by which time the desert heat, forecast to reach almost 90 degrees, will be subsiding. The turf course should be good to firm.

The program is supposed to culminate with the Maktoum Challenge Round 3, but this is a mishmash of a race reflecting the unsettled nature of the $10 million World Cup itself: The highest-rated runner among the 14 entrants is Godolphin’s African Story, a 7-year-old who won the 2012 Godolphin Mile but could only finish a well-beaten fifth in Animal Kingdom’s 2013 World Cup win.

Making his first start since that race, African Story finished second to returning rival Prince Bishop in the Maktoum Challenge Round 2 last month. Both horses are eligible to win Saturday, but bettors might do well to look deeper into the field.

Vercingetorix won his first four starts in South Africa during 2013 and picked up where he left off with a measured half-length win in a Feb. 13 Meydan handicap. He is one of four de Kock-trained runners in the 14-horse Jebel Hatta, though defending champion Trade Storm, a good second with trouble last week, could spoil the de Kock party.

Variety Club made his Dubai debut the same night as Vercingetorix, and his captivating two-length score in the Firebreak Stakes was his ninth straight win. Variety Club does not really stay the 1 1/4 miles of the World Cup, and thus, the Burj Nahaar on Saturday – which drew an overflow field – probably is a steppingstone to the Godolphin Mile.

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

Soft Falling Rain, one of the stars of the 2013 Carnival, breaks from post 14 in the Mahab al Shimaal at six furlongs on the Tapeta main track. The race marks his first start since Soft Falling Rain ran well below his best on a soft Ascot course in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II in October.

Shea Shea, who can win the Meydan Sprint for the second straight season, also races after a layoff, his last start having come in August at York, but though Shea Shea loves the straight turf course at Meydan, he finished a rusty seventh last winter in his first start after a break.

The City of Gold, a 1 1/2-mile turf prep for the Sheema Classic, might be more difficult to figure than the Maktoum Challenge. And with Long John, the dominant winner of the UAE 2000 Guineas presumably awaiting the UAE Derby on March 29, the age-restricted Al Bastakiya at 1 3/16 miles on Tapeta also could fall any number of ways.