Updated on 09/16/2011 8:01AM

Thoroughbred sandstorm


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - A stiff, persistent wind whipped clouds of sand across the desert Monday, obscuring the surroundings at Nad Al Sheba racetrack, site of Saturday night's $6 million Dubai World Cup. By the time the World Cup and five lucrative supporting races are run, full visibility is forecast.

Beyond the sand and wind, only two miles north of Nad Al Sheba, the powerful Godolphin racing stable waits ready for the world's richest day of racing. On Saturday, more than 20 Godolphin runners will emerge from their Al Quoz training center for the $15 million World Cup program, which was designed to be a showcase for the stable and this tiny Persian Gulf nation that is part of the United Arab Emirates.

Godolphin is owned by the Maktoums, the ruling family of Dubai. The architect of both the stable and the World Cup is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasid al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, who molded Nad Al Sheba into a world-class facility that could attract the world's top Thoroughbreds. Each spring, the World Cup is held in the Maktoums' backyard, and no one gets in without an invitation.

The current star of Godolphin is Sakhee. Like most Godolphin runners, Sakhee trains privately with Saeed bin Suroor at Al Quoz. History suggests Al Quoz horses will be in peak form. Sakhee, a 5-year-old, is not expected to lose the 1 1/4-mile World Cup; English bookmakers list him at odds-on.

There is good reason. Sakhee won the Arc de Triomphe by six lengths, lost the Breeders' Cup Classic by a nose, and enters spring a fresh horse. He dominated in a nine-length prep victory Feb. 24, and appears to tower over his rivals. The challengers will show up, however, and include Godolphin's Street Cry and surprise entrant Best of the Bests. Three others owned by Maktoum family members - Nayef, Royal Tryst, and State Shinto - are among the expected field of 12.

Sakhee's main threat, Agnes Digital, won five straight in Japan and Hong Kong, including four Group 1's. Trainer Toshiaki Shirai explains the simple reason for the trip: "To beat the champion," he said, knowing it will not be easy. The lone U.S. representative is Western Pride, runner-up in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Others expected include Japan-based mare To the Victory, last year's runner-up; Crimson Quest, Keltos, and Sei Mi.

The absence of Grade 1 American runners in the World Cup reflects the fragile U.S. handicap division, but there is significant U.S. representation elsewhere on the card. Five U.S. sprinters, including Xtra Heat, will run in the Golden Shaheen; Breeders' Cup Mile winner Val Royal is one of two U.S.-based turf milers in the Dubai Duty Free; three Americans will enter the Godolphin Mile for main-track milers.

Xtra Heat heads the five-horse group of U.S. sprinters in the $2 million Golden Shaheen. The six-furlong race is run on a straightaway, was won the last two years by Americans, and the prevailing Dubai forecast is for more of the same. Last year's winner, Caller One, and runner-up, Men's Exclusive, return, with California-bred Echo Eddie and Fairgrounds-based Bonapaw.

Val Royal will be favored to win the $2 million Dubai Duty Free over American-based Del Mar Show. Trainer Julio Canani acknowledges the reason Val Royal was invited to Dubai. "They [Godolphin] want to prove to the world that their horses are as good as our horses. And the reality is, they want to beat you."

Several obstacles face Val Royal. "To win this race, you have to be lucky, it's a 16-horse field," Canani said. Perhaps, but the configuration of the Nad Al Sheba turf course plays in favor of a late-runner such as Val Royal. The Duty Free is run at about nine furlongs and when the field turns into the stretch, there are nearly three furlongs to run. Any closer who is unable to find a clear path in such a long stretch is probably just not good enough.

Val Royal worked five furlongs Monday at 6 a.m., reported by clockers in 1:10.66. The slow time was not a concern to Canani, who said: "It was very windy, and I think the racetrack was a little dry and a little deep because of the wind."

In addition to Val Royal and Del Mar Show, other runners expected in the Duty Free are world traveler Jim and Tonic, top-class European comebacker No Excuse Needed, Noverre, and Group 1 winner Nayef. Eight of the 18 Duty Free early entrants are owned by Maktoum family members or Godolphin.

Kentucky Derby looms

Last year, Godolphin's 3-year-old Express Tour won the UAE Derby, stamping himself a potential Kentucky Derby candidate. This year, the 4-year-old Express Tour is one of several Godolphin runners in the $1 million Godolphin Mile. Express Tour, China Visit, Curule, and 2000 Godolphin Mile winner Conflict are among several Godolphin runners entered in the one-turn dirt race. U.S. runners Peeping Tom, Blade Prospector, and Grey Memo also will run in the expected full field.

The $2 million UAE Derby, extended to 1 1/4 miles, is likely to produce Godophin's best hope for the Kentucky Derby. The stable has eight of the 16 nominees, including Essence of Dubai, who won the Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes last fall in California and recently returned to action with a win over Firebreak in the UAE 2000 Guineas at Nad Al Sheba. Fueguino and Moon Ballad also were nominated. The 4-year-old Total Impact, trained in California by Laura de Seroux, arrives off a sharp North American debut when second in a Santa Anita allowance. Foaled in the Southern Hemisphere, he qualifies as a 3-year-old.

- The $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic, featuring Sagacity, will be run at 1 1/2 miles on turf and does not include a U.S. entrant. A race for Arabians kicks off the seven-race card.