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Mystical may be India's best ever
Think of it this way. If a terror on the Idaho racing circuit took his act to Santa Anita, or a Finger Lakes standout shipped into Saratoga, could the horse compete in something like a Grade 2 stakes? If you think not, then you probably wouldn't have liked the chances of Mystical when he started in the $110,000 Property Weekly Cup on Feb. 15 at Nad Al Sheba.
Mystical came into that race with a form line overrun by the number 1: He had finished first in 9 of 10 starts during 2006, and had won 14 of the 17 races in his career. But all of them had come in India, a country that rarely produces horses capable of competing elsewhere.
"We were confident that he would do well, but he surprised a lot of people over here," said Philip Woods, an assistant to trainer Subbiah Ganpathy, and the regular exercise rider for Mystical.
Mystical not only won his Dubai debut, becoming the first Indian horse ever to win a race here, he won again three weeks later, capturing a slightly more prestigious $175,000 race and earning a berth Saturday in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on the Dubai World Cup undercard. Based on Mystical's 2006 earnings, it would take about 12 highly productive years of Indian racing to earn as much as the winner of the Duty Free will take home.
Money is only part of it. An Indian horse named Polar Falcon held his own in races in Singapore, and Woods said "there have been quite a few horses that have been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and run well," but Mystical might be the best of them. Mystical was bred by Zavaray Poonawalla - he runs in the name of Poonawalla's wife - who is among India's staunchest breeders. And breeders they now have in a country once heavily populated by European castoffs, Woods said.
India has five major racing centers - Mystical is based primarily in Bangalore's - with racing shifting venues when the winter season gives way to the monsoon season. Availability of the Thoroughbred product also has increased recently with the advent of what Woods termed inter-venue betting, which sounds akin to American simulcasting.
Among Indian racing fans, Mystical is a star, a categorization that Woods himself has no trouble embracing.
"He's the best India has ever had - ever - and I've ridden a lot of good horses," said Woods, who is Indian.
Mystical lost as a 2-year old, though his form then does not appear on basic U.S. records, and he was defeated in the Indian Derby, as well.
"I wouldn't be able to tell you how that happened, because I wasn't with the horse, but I've been told that he got pocketed and never got out," Woods said.
Mystical's relative brilliance doesn't leap off his plain bay coat. He's neither tall nor particularly robust, and Woods said the horse tends to hold back until running counts for something.
"He's a very easy horse to train, very straightforward," he said. "You don't need to do too much with him, and he tries in all his races. You just have to keep him happy and fresh."
Indian expatriates went crazy when Mystical pulled his first two upsets this winter. They might bring the Nad Al Sheba grandstand down if he wins another.
No detail escapes Gabriel
During a training reprieve Tuesday morning near the one-mile-pole gap on Nad Al Sheba's main track, an outrider rode up to a cluster of railbirds, holding a dirty golf ball. An 18-hole golf course sits partly on the infield, partly just outside the racetrack, and some duffer's drive had gone badly awry.
"Where'd you find that?" Frank Gabriel asked, and was told the ball had surfaced near the half-mile pole. "What hole is that next to?" Gabriel queried, quickly told by an English golf enthusiast that the par 3 11th, with a water hazard and a slight dogleg, sat close by. Gabriel nodded like a man who meant to take action.
Which he surely would. Right down to stray golf balls on the racing surface, Frank Gabriel is doing in Dubai what he had done since taking his first racing job in 1974 at Timonium Race Course - work.
"Yep. I'm very busy, involved in a lot of different things," Gabriel said.
Gabriel and his wife, Christine, left Arlington Park after the track's 2005 season, Frank Gabriel having been appointed chief executive officer of the Dubai Racing Club.
"I think the greatest thing about it is the international experience I've been able to have," said Gabriel.
Gabriel had gone from higher-level management back into a more racing-oriented position before leaving Arlington. He's no longer playing racing secretary, but said he's "still involved in how the races are prepared." That, and a billion other things, given Gabriel's approach to his job. Gabriel said he and Christine - who works as a television racing host here, as she did in Chicago - were happy enough with the transition from suburban Chicago to suburban Dubai. Though his lifestyle hadn't changed much.
"Basically, what I do is work," he said.
Obrigado works for Sheema Classic
There were four timed workouts on Tuesday morning at Nad Al Sheba, three by lesser-known foreign horses, another by California-based Obrigado, who won the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo at Santa Anita in his most recent start. Nad Al Sheba clockers recorded Obrigado's turf work as 600 meters in 36.9 seconds, which trainer Neil Drysdale translated into American.
"He just stretched his legs," he said. "It was like a half-mile in 51 [seconds] or so."
Drysdale, never known to throw caution to the wind, is giving Obrigado the toughest test of a 15-race career in the $5 million Sheema Classic, a 1 1/2-mile turf race that might be the deepest spot on the World Cup card. But he believes the 4-year-old gelding, who was imported from France late last year, is improving at the right time.
"He's maturing, and the longer distance has helped," Drysdale said. "I always thought he was a mile-and-a-half horse. The [San Luis Obispo] was his first time over a mile and a half, and he got up there quite easily before he kind of waited a little bit."
Waiting is what Obrigado tends to do: He won a division of the Oceanside Stakes last summer at Del Mar by a head, then was three times second and once third before his last-out breakthrough. Obrigado might wait, but he also tries, and there is plenty of purse money for second and third place in the Sheema Classic.
"The race is very ambitious for him, but he's a gelding, and he has time to recover," said Drysdale.
* Storm Mayor was withdrawn from the World Cup because of travel problems, leaving the race with a prospective field of seven. Blatant also was withdrawn from the $1 million Godolphin Mile on Tuesday.