02/19/2010 12:00AM

New Dubai track a closer's special

Barbara D. Livingston
Gio Ponti's running style should lend itself to the Meydan surface.

NEW YORK - American trainers who sent horses to run in the Dubai World Cup throughout the race's 14 runnings at Nad Al Sheba could always count on the constant factor that closers were unlikely to win on the now defunct track's sandy surface. Only three World Cup winners - Cigar in 1996, Singspiel in 1997 and Electrocutionist in 2006 - came from farther back than fourth, and Cigar and Singspiel were running on a track that was considerably more favorable to closers before a new surface resembling the one at Churchill Downs was installed in 1998.

All of that history has gone out the window at Meydan, where the synthetic Tapeta surface invented and installed by Michael Dickinson has been playing very much like a turf course in its first six meetings since Jan. 28. While there have been only 38 races run on the new track, the evidence is statistically strong enough to suggest that what has been happening so far at Meydan will generally continue to happen over the next four meetings, including Dubai World Cup Night on March 27.

Three of those 38 races have been won on the front end. Four have been taken by horses pressing the pace or tracking the leader, with nine taken by trackers in third, fourth or fifth. Winners coming from mid-pack in fields of at least 10 horses number 15, while seven have come from at or near the back of the pack.

So 58 percent of this season's Meydan synthetic winners - 22 of 38 - have been closers. Moreover, one of the close-up trackers won his race in a very slowly run three-horse field going 1 1/4 miles, that being Allybar, the subsequent last-to-first winner of the 1 3/16-mile Maktoum Challenge on Thursday.

It is highly unlikely that we will see a horse like Well Armed, who won last year's World Cup by 14 lengths going wire to wire, succeed in this year's renewal. Curlin tracked the pacesetter in his 2008 World Cup triumph, while a year earlier Invasor came from fourth off a quick pace that yielded a time of 1:59.97, the second-fastest for the world's richest race behind that of only the remarkable Dubai Millennium, who set a Nad Al Sheba track record in 2000, leading throughout in 1:59.50.

Gio Ponti should find himself right at home on this kind of track, as he tends to come from no closer than fourth place. Both he and Richard's Kid, who won the Pacific Classic coming from 10th place and the San Antonio Handicap from 11th two weeks ago, are also proven on synthetic tracks.

We will know a great deal more about Dubai World Cup prospects after this weekend. On Saturday, all international eyes will have been on Tampa Bay Downs, where Gio Ponti was in light for his Dubai trial in a minor 1 1/16-mile turf stakes. Two Japanese prospects, the front-running Espoir City and the tracking type Success Brocken, lock horns on Sunday in the one-mile February Stakes on the Tokyo dirt track. They are scheduled to be joined in Dubai by Vodka, who would become the world's highest-earning Thoroughbred should she prevail in the big race.

Twice Over, third behind Zenyatta and Gio Ponti in the Breeders' Cup Classic, will run in the World Cup without benefit of a prep, an always-dodgy proposition. Trainer Henry Cecil worked Twice Over on the Al Bahathri Polytrack surface at Newmarket on Wednesday. Winner of the 1 1/4-mile Champion Stakes, Twice Over will travel to Lingfield Park for a work on Polytrack in early March.

Vision d'Etat, trained in France by Eric Libaud to become one of the world's very best 10-furlong turf horses, will also make his seasonal debut in the World Cup, which will also be his first try on a surface other than turf. That said, many of the winners on the Meydan Tapeta this season have been horses whose best previous form was on turf.

Mawatheeq, a half-length second to Twice Over in the Champion Stakes for trainer Marcus Tregoning, has been withdrawn from World Cup contention after suffering a fetlock injury. The Pascal Bary-trained, Brazilian-bred Gloria de Campeao, a distant second in last year's subpar World Cup, looked sharp taking the one-mile, Group 3 Maktoum Challenge at Meydan on Jan. 28 and will prep for the big race in Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge going 1 1/4 miles on March 4. Godolphin's Allybar, whose victory in Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge made him 2 for 2 on the Meydan Tapeta, is a much-improved 4-year-old son of 2000 Guineas winner King's Best and likes to come from well out of it.

Lingfield Park near London will be the site of one of the more intriguing World Cup trials when Gitano Hernando runs in the 1 1/4-mile Winter Derby Trial on Polytrack next Saturday. A 4-year-old son of Hernando, he has been aimed for the Dubai World Cup since winning the Goodwood Handicap on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride on Oct. 10. Trained by an Italian, Marco Botti, at Newmarket, Gitano Hernando may have more improvement left in him than any of his World Cup rivals. Botti has booked Kieren Fallon, the man who rode him in the Goodwood, for the World Cup.