03/24/2009 11:00PM

Rolling dice with Albertus Maximus


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Gambling is illegal in Dubai. Racegoers at Nad Al Sheba can fill out pick-seven cards, but that is more a lottery than anything, a stab at hitting all seven winners on one card. Try to look back at odds on past Dubai World Cup performers, and you'll find no such official figures exist. But it is mighty hard to fully detach gambling from horse racing. The whole claiming game is predicated on a half-blind gamble. Go a step further, and realize that any equine purchase basically is a bet that the horse is worth the money.

No one is saying that Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum is a gambling man. But Rick Nichols, manager of Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Farm, readily conceded that the sheikh's purchase of Albertus Maximus as a Dubai World Cup candidate last year was something other than a sure thing. Albertus Maximus has won two major races in a row now, capturing the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, a synthetic-track race, in a performance that piqued Nichols's interest in the horse. But at the time, Albertus Maximus never had won beyond 1 1/16 miles, and had made just two starts on dirt compared with 10 on all-weather tracks. So, what convinced Nichols that Albertus Maximus would be suited to the Dubai World Cup, a 1 1/4-mile dirt race?

"We didn't know for sure," Nichols said Wednesday evening. "We were gambling."

So far, the gamble is looking good. In his first start wearing Sheikh Hamdan's colors, and his first under the care of trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, Albertus Maximus won the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Jan. 31 at Gulfstream Park, a nine-furlong dirt race. Nice work, Albertus - but that was only a means to an end. The end is Saturday night's $6 million Dubai World Cup, which Sheikh Hamdan and McLaughlin won two years ago with Invasor.

Nichols said it took about six weeks to engineer Albertus Maximus's purchase from owners Brandon and Marianne Chase, who employed Vladimir Cerin to train the horse. Albertus Maximus had flirted with becoming a graded stakes horse in 2007, but made his real moved forward only in the second half of last year.

"After the Breeders' Cup, we were really impressed with his style of running," Nichols said. "We thought that was a horse we needed to look at."

Here in Dubai, Albertus Maximus is being viewed by many as a possible heir to Invasor, but the two horses share only a few common traits. Invasor came to the World Cup having won the Breeders' Cup Classic the previous fall, and early in his career he had been a sensation in Uruguay. Before the Breeders' Cup, Albertus Maximus had won no races of consequence - and had lunged at far fewer human hands than Invasor.

"Invasor would bite your fingers off if you didn't watch out," said McLauglin. "This horse is very kind. Both horses gallop aggressively. This horse will go 16 seconds an eighth of a mile, where most horses go 18 or 19 seconds a furlong. He's just naturally strong in that, almost two-minute-licking when he gallops."

McLaughlin said Albertus Maximus, who is rapidly becoming the best son of sire Albert the Great, sometimes wants to gallop too strongly. "That's the only thing - he requires a good exercise rider, since he can pull," McLaughlin said. "Rob Massey, he gallops him well every day. He communicates very well with him."

Albertus Maximus beat Finallymadeit, who is no Grade 1 animal, by a only half-length in the Donn, but looked good winning, showing he could perform at his best on dirt and at 1 1/8 miles. And McLaughlin said he believes the 2,000 meters - 1 1/4 miles - of the World Cup also will be within Albertus's scope. McLaughlin cut his training teeth in Dubai, and knows the Nad Al Sheba track as well as any American trainer. To him, 1 1/4 miles around one turn here plays like a shorter race than more typical two-turn 1 1/4 miles back in the United States.

"I think he'll get the distance," McLaughlin said. "He never gets tired in his workouts. We haven't had this horse that long, but he's 1-1 for us, and done everything right. He's a very smart horse, and a very sound horse."

Sounder, in fact, than his more famous predecessor: Invasor was dogged by a cranky hind ankle.

"His one main thing was he'd had surgery on a hind ankle in Uruguay," said McLaughlin. "He was clean-legged up front, but the hind ankle, you always had to be aware of it. This horse is real straightforward."

McLaughlin, for his part, is straightforward about trying to win one of the world's most prestigious races for a second time with a horse bought specifically for that task by a member of Dubai's ruling family. Contrary to what one might think, the pressure is not on.

"That's what makes Sheikh Hamdan a great owner and a great man," he said. "He would feel poorly for myself and my staff if the horse lost. He would never point a finger, never second-guess. He'd be disappointed, but not with us. He knows were doing the best we can."

Doing the best they can - and gambling that Albertus will keep running through that extra furlong on Saturday night.