02/16/2017 5:18PM

Meydan: Ertijaal, Championship set course records winning major stakes

Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Ertijaal wins the Meydan Sprint, covering about five furlongs in 55.90 seconds under Jim Crowley.

Fast horses and a fast-playing grass course led to two track records Thursday night at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.

The excellent turf sprinter Ertijaal became the first horse to break 56 seconds for 1,000 meters (about five furlongs) down the Meydan straightaway when he clocked 55.90 in a visually striking win in the Group 3, $175,000 Meydan Sprint. Ertijaal tracked pacesetting The Happy Prince for about half the trip, took over with a blistering run through the middle section, and had the race well in hand with a furlong still left. He crossed the finish 2 3/4 lengths in front of the good sprinter Jungle Cat, who had more than four lengths on third-place Caspian Prince.

“He’s an airplane. I’ve had some nice sprinters to ride, but he tops the list,” said Jim Crowley, who rode Ertijaal for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum and trainer Ali Rashid al Rayhi.  “He gets quite fractious in the stalls. That’s the only chink in his armor, really. You can ride him where he’s happy. He’s got a huge stride on him for a sprinter. It feels like he’s doing one stride for every one of their two. He’s one of those horses – and it’s the sign of a good horse – where you don’t actually realize how quick you’re going.”

Ertijaal, by Oasis Dream out of Habiba, by Seeking the Gold, won for the sixth time in his last seven starts, his lone defeat in that span a second-place finish to Buffering in the $1 million Al Quoz Sprint on the Dubai World Cup card last March. That race has been lengthened from 1,000 meters to 1,200 meters for 2017, but if Ertijaal holds this form, he still will be the horse to beat in it.

While Ertijaal established his bona fides last winter, the 6-year-old gelding Championship has been a revelation during this Dubai World Cup Carnival. A gate-to-wire 3 1/2-length winner of the seven-furlong, Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort on Jan. 19, Championship raced just as effectively from off the pace over one mile capturing the Group 2, $250,000 Zabeel Mile by 2 3/4 lengths Thursday. He was timed in 1:35.19 for 1,600 meters, another course record.

Championship, by Exceed and Excel and out of the Halling mare Aljafliyah, began his career in Europe and spent his first winter in Dubai last year. He finished last in the 2016 Zabeel Mile, and has turned into a totally different horse the last two months for Ahmad bin Harmash. Championship and jockey Colm O’Donoghue found wide passage between horses in upper stretch of the Zabeel Mile, went through the hole smoothly, and ran alone to the wire. Noah from Goa edged Cymric in a distant battle for the place spot.

“It was a good performance,” O’Donoghue said. “He was hard fit today, very fit and relaxed. He’s been trained to improve through the Carnival and take each step.”

It remains to be see if Championship, who gave more than three pounds to his rivals, can sustain this form burst another six weeks and over a furlong farther in the $6 million Dubai Turf, a race that probably will be the major Dubai goal for Zarak, another sharp Thursday winner.

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Zarak, making his Dubai debut, easily won the Group 3, $200,000 Dubai Millennium Stakes over 2,000 meters, or about 1 1/4 miles. Tracking a slow pace from midpack under Christophe Soumillon, Zarak got a clean outside run, made the front about 300 meters out, and was under no pressure whatsoever posting a 1 3/4-length win over Earnshaw.

Zarak, a 4-year-old Aga Khan homebred trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre, is by Dubawi and out of the great Zarkava, and could be on the brink of stardom. Second in the French Derby to the top-class Almanzor last summer, Zarak was at least a little disappointing finishing fourth over a mile in the Prix du Moulin and third as the favorite over 1 1/4 miles in the Prix Dollar last fall. Fast ground and left turns, however, appear to greatly agree with Zarak, who always traveled like a winner and was much the best Thursday while not being trained to be anywhere near his own best.

“Alain didn’t want him to become too fit; there’s a big target for World Cup Night,” said Soumillon. “The horse was quite fresh tonight, keen, but I was quite happy the way he did it. He doesn’t like to hit the front too early, but I had no choice.”

The question for World Cup Night is whether to go for the Dubai Turf over 1 1/8 miles or the Sheema Classic over 1 1/2 miles, and Soumillon believes the shorter race better suits Zarak.

“He looks like a miler. To choose between the two, I’d say shorter,” he said.

Promising Run, who had won well in the Al Rashidiya Stakes last month, set the pace but failed to stay and finished third.

In the Group 2 Balanchine for fillies over one mile on turf, heavily favored Very Special beat just one of her five rivals as Opal Tiara posted a mild upset. Second by a half-length to Very Special last month in the Cape Verdi Stakes, Opal Tiara won by a neck over Via Firenze in the Group 2, $200,000 Balanchine. Oisin Murphy rode the winner, a 4-year-old daughter of Thousand Words, for trainer Mick Channon. Opal Tiara ran 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) in 1:49.72.