03/25/2008 12:00AM

Vermilion invincible since last Dubai try


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Science fiction is an especially popular form of manga, Japanese comics. Galloping around the Nad Al Sheba track on Monday, Vermilion seemed like he might have emerged straight out of just such a publication.

Tall, long-bodied, and dark bay, Vermilion came onto the track wearing four bright-yellow polo bandages, and sporting remarkable headgear. Vermilion's set of blinkers were fitted with bulging full screens, giving him a bug-eyed look. Atop the blinkers was a hood stiffly encasing Vermilion's ears, putting an observer in mind of Batman, and on the blinkers was a red "V" with a small, yellow cursive "Vermilion" scrolled across it. The rider's name also might have come straight from a comic: Shin.

Vermilion, who does not race in the hood or screens, looked good, but not just in a fashion sense, either. A distant fourth in last year's Dubai World Cup to Invasor, Vermilion has come far forward in the last year. In the fall of 2006, he finished fourth in the Japan Cup Dirt, a race familiar to Americans, since U.S.-based horses regularly have shipped for it (and mostly lost). In last year's Japan Cup Dirt, a major international Group 1 race, Vermilion won by 1 1/4 lengths, beating 15 opponents. Since running in the World Cup and getting a subsequent break from racing, Vermilion has won four straight dirt races - all Grade 1's in Japan - by a combined 11 lengths.

"He totally changed after the Dubai race," trainer Sei Ishizaka said through an interpreter Tuesday morning, watching Vermilion do figure eights on the Nad Al Sheba one-mile chute after going through a spirited gallop. "He has improved, both in his body and his mind. He was not a mature horse, and he needed time. Maybe the experience of having a hard race was good for him."

Japanese horses have had past success on the World Cup card, though not in the World Cup itself. From 37 starters in the various stakes races, Japanese horses have taken home four winner's trophies, including two in 2006. Last year, Admire Moon won the Dubai Duty Free over a strong field.

Three other Japanese horses besides Vermilion are here for the races this year. The filly Vodka, who worked on turf Tuesday morning, starts in the Duty Free, as does the improving, lightly raced colt Admire Aura. Admire Aura had a strong gallop Tuesday morning in company with Iide Kenshin, who races Saturday in the UAE Derby.

Finsceal Beo tunes up for Duty Free

The flow of horse racing in the U.S. goes round and round. Whether racing the "right" way in the afternoon, or jogging the "wrong" way in the morning, American horses beat a path around racing ovals.

But in a quiet corner of the vast property that houses the Nad Al Sheba track, the horse flow goes back and fourth. Next to a dirt training track about a mile away from the Nad Al Sheba grandstand is a five-furlong, straight-course turf gallop, an exercise course especially favored by Europeans. The grass on the gallop is longer and the ground deeper than on Nad Al Sheba's regular turf course. It can be an appealing option, even if the configuration means slowing down and turning around.

The turf gallop was busy during training hours Tuesday, with several horses jogging down the backstretch of the dirt training track, then crossing over to the turf course and galloping down it. With this setup, horsemen only get to see a brief flash of their horse in full gallop, a situation that did not worry trainer Jim Bolger at all.

"That'll do me," Bolger said, just after Finsceal Beo had been pulled to a stop after galloping once down the straight course.

Finsceal Beo has been a regular on the turf gallops, and Bolger hopes the filly is back now to the top-class form she showed early last year. If that's the case, Finsceal Beo would be a major contender in the Duty Free. A 4-year-old American-bred filly by Mr. Greeley, Finsceal Beo was an excellent 2-year-old, winning the Group 1 Prix Marcel Boussac by five lengths two Octobers ago. Last season, she won the English 1000 Guineas and the Irish 1000 Guineas, and was beaten a head in the French 1000 Guineas by Darjina, who also will start in the Duty Free.

That kind of performance would fit the Duty Free, provided Finsceal Beo can carry her mile form out to 1 1/8 miles, but Finsceal Beo's three races since the Irish 1000 Guineas have produced disappointing finishes: an eighth, a sixth, and a fifth.

"She just didn't fire on the back end of the year," said Bolger.

Canani high on longshot Spring House

If it is the week of the Dubai World Cup, then trainer Julio Canani will be found somewhere in Dubai. And on Tuesday morning, Canani had settled in at the gap where U.S.-based horses make their way onto the main track after walking over from the quarantine barn.

Canani has brought at least one horse to run here every year, and this season he has come over with Spring House, a longshot in the Sheema Classic.

"The bookmakers are going to make me 200-1," Canani said, not seeming to care.

Spring House, a 6-year-old, has run 30 times, and none of his five wins have come in a Gradeo1 race. In fact, Spring House has started only once in a Grade 1, finishing third on Dec. 8 in the Hollywood Turf Cup.

But Canani has trained Spring House only since late last spring, when owner R.D. Hubbard moved the horse west and out of trainer John Hennig's East- and Midwest-based operation. The Hollywood Turf Cup defeat came between two stakes wins, both at the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Sheema Classic.

"He's sound, he's healthy, and that's what counts," said Canani. "I think maybe he's a mile-and-a-half horse. Maybe when he's older, he's better."

* Post positions and final fields for the seven World Cup races (the evening's first race is for Arabians, followed by the six Thoroughbred stakes) were to be drawn on Wednesday evening.

The local weather forecast calls for partly cloudy skies Saturday and Saturday night, and weather should not play a major role.