03/22/2016 2:54PM

Watson revived by return to Meydan dirt

Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Polar River will try the UAE Derby as the favorite after struggling to win the UAE Oaks earlier this month.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- If the Tapeta surface era at Meydan was the worst of times for trainer Doug Watson – and, as far as training horses goes, it was – Year 2 of the dirt era at Meydan has ushered in the best of times.

The 50-year-old American expatriate is nearing the end of his 23rd racing season in Dubai, and has won more than twice as many races at Meydan this winter as any other trainer. Watson has 30 winners entering the season’s final card, Saturday’s World Cup program, and he will be amply represented there, too, with seven runners, including favored Polar River in the UAE Derby and three for the Godolphin Mile.

Watson this season at Meydan has won with 30 of his 154 starters, 17 more than Ali al Raihe, second among Meydan trainers in wins. Watson during the 2014–2015 season won 21 Meydan races, one more than Satish Seemar in the first year of dirt racing at this palatial track several miles outside Dubai’s city center.

Watson’s 30 Meydan wins since December, incredibly, are three more than his stable accumulated the five years main-track races here were conducted on an all-weather surface, during which period Watson went an abysmal 27-537.

Watson’s training yard, Red Stables, sits a few miles away from Meydan and has its own training track. The surface is dirt, and Watson’s stock simply could not adapt to racing on a surface drastically different than that over which they trained.

“We had five very quiet years,” Watson, the former Dubai assistant to Kiaran McLaughlin, said Tuesday morning. “We train on a dirt track, and then trying to come over and run on the Tapeta, I struggled, struggled, struggled, and struggled. I used to come over here when it was Tapeta and had a bunch to run, been training great at home, and think, ‘We gotta win at least one,’ and then have one placed fifth the whole night. The first couple times last year after they put it down I’d say, ‘Nah they’re not going to run any good.’ I think we had five seconds the first night, and then we started winning races.”

Watson believes all three of his Godolphin Mile entrants – One Man Band, Cool Cowboy, and Faulkner – are in with a chance, though Watson readily offers Marking, trained by his old boss, McLaughlin, as the horse to beat. Watson’s World Cup runner, Candy Boy, faces the daunting task of racing in a $10 million race following a year’s layoff: Candy Boy was a decent fourth in the 2015 World Cup, but suffered a leg injury that set back his schedule and didn’t afford time for a prep race this winter. Watson also has longshots Basateen for the Sheema Classic and Meadow Creek for the Gold Cup, but it’s Polar River in the UAE Derby who provides his best chance for a winner Saturday night.

Polar River, an American-bred by Congrats, began her career in December at Meydan and has won all four of her starts. She won the UAE 1000 Guineas Feb. 11 by 13 lengths, a performance so impressive that Polar River was included in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager in March, but the filly was withdrawn from that pool when, following a narrow three-quarter-length win March 3 in the UAE Oaks, she was apparently withdrawn from consideration from the Oaks.

But on Tuesday, Watson wasn’t totally ruling the Oaks out for Polar River, though everything depends on how she performs Saturday night, and what the filly’s Russian owners desire.

“I want to do the right thing by her,” Watson said. “I really haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk to the owners – they’ve been watching from afar – but they’ll be here on the night. If she were to win nicely by some stretch of luck, you’d give the Oaks a thought. It’d be a nice story. I’d probably rather give her some time, point to the [Acorn Stakes on June 11 at Belmont] or something. I think we’ll take her over. I’m pretty sure they want to go.”

Polar River ran below her best in the UAE Oaks, Watson readily concedes, but he strongly believes there was good reason for regression. Polar River had several relatively minor issues leading into the race, including a tooth that had to be extracted. She gutted out the win, and has come back around, Watson believes, to her best form again for the UAE Derby. Polar River worked a half-mile in about 49 seconds before her last race, but Sunday at Red Stables, she went a half in 46.50, Watson said.

“Her work Sunday was unbelievable. I have a faster track, so add a second on, but she galloped out as strong as you can gallop out,” he said.