03/21/2010 11:00PM

Vast riches await in desert

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With $26 million on the line at Meydan on Saturday, Dubai World Cup Night figured to attract a top-class international group of horses. That is certainly the case in the World Cup itself as well as the Duty Free and the Sheema Classic, but the Golden Shaheen and the Godolphin Mile have come up on the light side.

As a general rule, one should be wary of backing horses from Europe who will be making their seasonal debuts Saturday. It is rare that they manage to win on World Cup Night, although there are quite a few good ones in both the World Cup and the Sheema Classic.

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Dubai World Cup: This is a competitive race, with four or five holding a very good chance of victory, plus some intriguing dark horses. Gio Ponti was still William Hill's 5-1 favorite on Monday, despite his loss over an inadequate 1 1/16 miles on the Tampa Bay turf on Feb. 20, but he has been drifting with Ladbrokes, where he is the 6-1 third choice behind Vision d'Etat and Twice Over, both of whom will be making their first start of the season in the World Cup, which is being run for the first time on a synthetic track (Tapeta) this year. Gio Ponti finished ahead of Twice Over in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but Vision d'Etat is probably better than Twice Over. The progressive Japanese filly Red Desire closed like a freight train to take Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge over the World Cup course and distance and will switch to Christophe Soumillon from Olivier Peslier, who is claimed to ride Vision d'Etat. Most dangerous is Gitano Hernando. A perfect 4 for 4 on synthetics, he looked sharp winning the Winter Derby Trial on Polytrack after a 4 1/2-month absence since taking the Goodwood Stakes on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride.

As 4-year-olds, Gitano Hernando and Red Desire are both eligible to improve, something that cannot necessarily be said of their older rivals. Look for Gitano Hernando, who will be ridden by Kieren Fallon, to lead at about the eighth pole and hold off the late challenge of Red Desire.

Dubai Sheema Classic: This 1 1/2-mile turf contest could fall to another Japanese filly, Buena Vista. Like Red Desire, she is ultra-consistent and prepped well, with a win over males in the 1 3/8-mile, Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen on Feb. 20. Winner of the Japanese Oaks, she just missed when a half-length second in the 1 9/16-mile, Grade 1 Arima Kinen against males in December and always finishes strongly. While this is a step up in class for her, some of her most dangerous rivals are making their seasonal debuts.

They are Dar Re Mi, third in the Breeders' Cup Turf and fifth in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe; defending titleholder Eastern Anthem; Jukebox Jury, runner-up in the Canadian International; and Spanish Moon, who was fourth in the BC Turf but was then second in the 1 1/2-mile Hong Kong Vase. Spanish Moon was a nose second in last year's Sheema Classic off a winter layoff, and his trainer, Michael Stoute, knows how to win races off a long absence as he did with Singspiel in the 1997 Dubai World Cup.

Presious Passion will try to take them all the way, but the long 2 1/2-furlong stretch will work against him. Golden Sword could be sitting on a big race following a game third in the Dubai City of Gold.

Dubai Duty Free: The Luca Cumani-trained Presvis may have both a class and a conditioning edge in this 1 1/8-mile turf Group 1. Second in this last year to the freaky Gladiatorus, he prepped with the best victory in the five local Duty Free preps, taking the Group 2 Jebel Hatta from Alexandros, previously the winner of the Group 3 Al Rashidiya. Christope Lemaire will ride Presvis for the first time as they face Banakable, who just nosed Imbongi, subsequent winner of the Group 2 Zabeel Mile, in the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort. The Godolphin-owned Justenuffhumor, third in the Breeders' Cup Mile, has disappointed in two Meydan starts, but BC Mile runner-up Courageous Cat, fresh from a weight-giving win in the Grade 3 Canadian Turf at Gulfstream, is sitting on ready. The Usual Q.T. will benefit by a return to turf but may not be good enough. Good Ba Ba, three-time winner of the Hong King Mile, is certainly good enough. The pick, however, is Presvis over Good Ba Ba and Courageous Cat.

Dubai Golden Shaheen: Where have all the Americans gone? Nine of the last 10 runnings of of this six-furlong dash were won by American-trained horses, who usually supplied three or four runners per year on the straight dirt track at Nad Al Sheba. Only one will go in the newly configured race on the Meydan Tepeta around a single, American-style left-handed turn. That is the Carl O'Callagahn-trained Kinsale King. The winner of Hollywood's Grade 3 Vernon Underwood and Santa Anita's Palos Verdes, he will be challenged by Godolphin Gayego, the Godolphin-owned runner who won the Ancient Title at Santa Anita last fall more impressively than did Kinsale King in his two big wins. But Gayego has met trouble when he was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and second in the Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint and must not lag early. If either of those two falter, Rocket Man, from Singapore, could pick up the pieces. He has only been headed once in his nine-race career at Kranji, that when beaten by the world's highest-rated sprinter, Sacred Kingdom, in the Group 1 Krisflyer International Sprint. Rocket Man also is 2 for 2 on synthetics in Kranji allowances by a combined 14 lengths, but he must avoid a speed duel with Kinsale King. If those two go head to head, it could set things up for Gayego.

UAE Derby: Extended to 1 3/16 miles to conform to Meydan's configuration, this Kentucky Derby prep looks like a two-horse race. The Godolphin-owned Mendip was very sharp when he cruised clear by 6 1/4 lengths over the course and distance in the listed Al Bastakiya three weeks ago. Further improvement is expected from Mendip, a Harlan's Holiday colt, who faces a stiff challenge from the Mike de Kock-trained Musir, the 3 1/4-length winner of the one-mile, Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas. Proven at the distance, Mendip is the choice and will receive 11 pounds on the scale from the Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old Musir.

Godolphin Mile: Desert Party is the day's best bet by virtue of his 1 1/4-length win in the six-furlong, Group 3 Mahab Al Shimaal over Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint winner War Artist. That was Desert Party's first race since he finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, so he will improve for that effort as he returns to a mile, the distance of his 2009 UAE 2000 Guineas victory at Nad Al Sheba.

Al Quoz Sprint: Added to the World Cup card and upped in value from $200,000 to $1omillion but still a Group 3, this is a straight six-furlong dash on turf. The speedy California Flag will try to take them all the way with Joe Talamo aboard. He couldn't quite manage the trick when he ran fifth in the Hong Kong Sprint in his last start on Dec. 13, but may get an easier lead this time. The one to fear is War Artist, who reverts to turf after failing in the Mahab Al Shimaal.