01/15/2008 1:00AM

Road to Dubai World Cup begins

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The fifth annual Dubai Racing Carnival gets under way at Nad Al Sheba on Thursday night with the 15th running of Round 1 of the Group 3, $200,000 Maktoum Challenge, a one-mile dirt race intended as an early primer for the Dubai World Cup but with more of the feel of a Godolphin Mile prep.

Last year's winner, Imperialista, now trained by Saeed bin Suroor for Sheikh Mohammed's son Majid, has done nothing since then to deserve inclusion in the race, having finished ninth in last year's Maktoum Challenge-Round 2 and then last of 15 in his most recent outing 11 months ago.

Mike de Kock has an ex-American hopeful in Frosty Secret. Third in the Withers at Aqueduct last April for Henry Collazo, he prepped with a sharp second in a six-furlong Nad Al Sheba allowance on Jan. 3. South African rider Kevin Shea has the call.

Vortex, 12th in the Godolphin Mile last March, arrives from England off a seven-furlong Lingfield Polytrack score, while the well-traveled Jack Sullivan, third in the 2006 Godolphin Mile and fresh from a first and second on the Lingfield Polytrack, will have Michael Kinane aboard but must start from post 16 in a field of 16. Brazilian Group 2 turf winner Gloria de Campeao, sixth in the Groupo2 Prix Daniel Wildenstein at Longchamp in October, has won on dirt in Brazil. Etihaad and Jet Express are both coming off course and distance victories.

The 10-meeting Carnival climaxes with Dubai World Cup Night on March 29 when $21 million of the Carnival's $31 million in purses will be up for grabs. Thursday's meeting includes six Thoroughbred contests worth a total of $745,000. HRTV will provide live coverage of the Carnival through World Cup Night.

The buzz at Nad Al Sheba this week centered on the announcement that Ramonti, a four-time Group 1 winner on turf for Godolphin last year in England and Hong Kong, would probably bypass the Dubai World Cup to remain on turf for the Dubai Duty Free. He could be replaced in the big race by Literato, whom Godolphin purchased after his victory in Newmarket's Group 1 Champion Stakes in October.

Also dreaming of World Cup riches is last year's runner-up, Premium Tap, the ex-John Kimmel trainee who has won twice of late in Saudi Arabia. Kiaran McLaughlin is aiming his Cigar Mile winner Daaher, owned like 2007 World Cup winner Invasor by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, to the big race, while Curlin is a possibility as well, much depending on his complicated ownership situation.

Vermilion, fourth in last year's World Cup, has gone from strength to strength in his native Japan, winning all three of his races on dirt since Oct. 31 - the JBC Classic, the Japan Cup Dirt, and the Tokyo Daishoten.