03/25/2015 12:15PM

Mott returns to World Cup with talented Lea

Mathea Kelley/Dubai Racing Club
Lea will start Saturday in the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – For what it’s worth – and who doesn’t appreciate a nice, round number – this is the 20th edition of the Dubai World Cup, which means it was 19 years ago this week that Cigar held off Soul of the Matter and put the World Cup on the map.

“It seems like with all the talk that there’s been about Cigar since that inaugural running, I think he’s really helped make this race what it is,” said Bill Mott, who on Wednesday morning recalled shipping in to a Dubai that was a minor, browner version of the sprawling, irrigated mass it has become nearly two decades later.

Cigar stamped the World Cup with legitimacy, and Mott, his trainer, always will be woven deeply into that narrative, but since that first rousing Dubai success, it’s been crickets here for Hall of Famer Mott as his five subsequent Dubai runners have failed to make a dent.

Del Mar Show, Blue Burner, and Courageous Cat – Mott’s first three post-Cigar runners – probably were overmatched, and Mott’s most recent starter, Royal Delta, could not abide the all-weather Tapeta racing surface, which was installed when Meydan opened in 2010 but replaced for this season by a sand-based dirt track. A model of consistency, Royal Delta struggled home ninth in the 2012 World Cup and 10th in 2013.

If Cigar paved a path for a steady flow of high-profile American shippers at old Nad al Sheba, Royal Delta’s struggles were emblematic of waning American enthusiasm for the World Cup’s synthetic-surface era. And Mott made no secret of why he is back in Dubai again with a major contender, Lea, for Saturday night’s $10 million World Cup.

“If it wasn’t a dirt track, we wouldn’t be here,” Mott said.

Lea, a robust chestnut specimen, has been here for more than a week now, but Mott had his first day out at Meydan on Wednesday, when he watched Lea go through a slow-to-moderate gallop and liked what he saw.

“His weight seems good, and he’s eating good,” Mott said. “I’m pleased with what I’ve seen.”

:: DUBAI WORLD CUP: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s Meydan card live

Lea has won 7 of 14 starts and earned just shy of $900,000 in purses. He is no Cigar, but his history has parallels with his famed predecessor in the Mott stable. Like Cigar, Lea began his career for a different trainer, Al Stall, and seemed to be mainly a turf horse when Mott started training him in 2013. Switched entirely over to dirt during the winter of 2014, he won the Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream, then defeated an in-form Will Take Charge in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, one of the best dirt-route performances in the last two calendar years.

But Lea contracted a virus that knocked him out of action the rest of the season, Mott said, and it was not until he won the Hal’s Hope again in January that Lea returned to action. That win prompted thoughts about Dubai, said Mott, and though Lea returned to finish second to Constitution in the Donn, he showed enough for Mott to encourage owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider to send the 6-year-old overseas.

California Chrome is playing the role of Cigar this week, the American horse with star power, but it could easily be Lea who takes over the part Sunday, playing the role of Dubai World Cup winner.