03/23/2017 3:46PM

UAE Derby: Thunder Snow has class edge over rivals

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Dubai Racing Club / Andrew Watkins
Thunder Snow wins the UAE 200 Guineas in his first try on dirt.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The first 170-point qualifying race on Churchill Downs’s Road to the Kentucky Derby comes Saturday – in Dubai.

The Group 2, $2 million UAE Derby over about 1 3/16 miles awards 100 Derby qualifying points to the winner. Win and you are truly in the Kentucky Derby – unless you are one of the Southern Hemisphere 4-year-olds eligible for the UAE Derby but not the American Triple Crown. Four of the last five UAE Derby winners went on to race in the Derby – none to any great effect – though the one horse during that span who did not go, Toast of New York, was the best of the bunch.

This year’s UAE Derby drew 16 entrants and appears to be wildly competitive – unless Thunder Snow is simply better than his many rivals. He might be. Thunder Snow ranked high among European 2-year-olds last year, winning the Group 1 Criterium International by five lengths to finish his season.

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He was tried on dirt six weeks ago in the UAE 2000 Guineas over one mile, contested the pace between horses, and drew off to a five-length win. Thunder Snow doesn’t have a dirt pedigree but traveled well enough on the surface while displaying the stride and style of a horse capable of racing farther.

As for going farther, UAE Derby entrant Vettori Kin appeared to gallop at least two miles during his Thursday training session, getting stronger the farther he went. The Brazilian-bred came to trainer Ken McPeek over the winter from South America, where he won at the Group 3 level going 1 3/8 miles on dirt, and has been training for this race at Payson Park in Florida. He has a decent chance Saturday, as does fellow South American import He Runs Away, fourth in the Group 1 Carlos Pellegrini in Argentina, where he faced older horses on turf and finished in front of Vettori Kin.

Trainer Mike de Kock is high on Fawree, but Fawree was unruly at the start of the March 4 Al Bastakiya here and dumped his rider out of the gate, losing a prep race de Kock worries might have been essential to success Saturday.

Epicharis, one of two Japanese horses in the race, along with Adirato, already has qualified for the Kentucky Derby by winning the Japanese Road to the Kentucky Derby. Epicharis is unbeaten in four starts, but it is difficult to gauge the level of his competition.

Cosmo Charlie is a course and distance winner stuck in post 15. Lancaster Bomber, in from Ireland, was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf but has little dirt in his pedigree. The Todd Pletcher-trained Master Plan might be a half-notch below the top contenders.

Al Quoz Sprint: Ertijaal in tough

There is no doubt that Ertijaal is the cat’s meow when it comes to Dubai-based turf sprinters. Ertijaal has bossed around the local competition for two seasons, and the lengthening of the Group 1, $1 million Al Quoz Sprint this year from about five furlongs to about six furlongs will not stop a horse who has won well enough over seven furlongs. One might even make the case that Ertijaal is a stronger horse right now than when he finished second to Buffering in the 2016 Al Quoz, and still Ertijaal is no lock in Saturday’s race.

There are two horses who can beat him: Limato and Amazing Kids. Limato comes by way of England and has been slightly erratic in his training this week. Limato ran below his best when last seeing action in the Breeders’ Cup Mile last fall, but a straight-course six furlongs is right up his alley.

Amazing Kids is based in Hong Kong, which has top-notch turf sprinters and runs most of its highest-end turf sprints around a right-handed turn. Amazing Kids, however, appears to prefer a straight course, and if he can work out a trip from post 1, he might give Ertijaal a scare.

Dubai Gold Cup: Upset special?

The French 5-year-old Vazirabad has won 9 of his 14 starts, and in 12 races beyond 1 1/2 miles, he never has finished worse than second. One of his wins came a year ago in the Group 2, $1 million Dubai Gold Cup over about two miles on grass, but while Vazirabad is formidable in Saturday’s edition of the race, he is not unbeatable.

In fact, there are several better-priced horses who could take down the favorite. Bettors would do well to consider the merits of Sheikhzayedroad, Big Orange (a close second in this race last year), Heartbreak City, and Trip to Paris, but the pick here is Quest for More, who is flying somewhat under the radar for trainer Roger Charlton and really only found the best form of his career last fall.