03/24/2008 12:00AM

Who's who at Nad Al Sheba

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When Stanley Ho Hung Sun bought the British-trained Comic Strip in the autumn of 2005, he knew what he was doing when he renamed him Viva Pataca. The national currency of Macau, the pataca is something with which Ho has an intimate relationship, as he is the king of Macau's burgeoning casino empire.

Patacas gravitate to him even more easily than they do to Viva Pataca, a 6-year-old son of Marju who will attempt to add $3 million to his bankroll of $5,526,441 by winning the Dubai Sheema Classic at Nad Al Sheba on Saturday night.

Don't bet against him in the 1 1/2-mile Group 1 stakes, for Viva Pataca could be the play of the day despite his probable favoritism. Whereas Curlin will be no better than 1-2 in the Dubai World Cup, Viva Pataca could be as high as 3-1 in a hotly contested Sheema Classic.

Trained by John Moore, Viva Pataca rarely runs a bad race and is 2 for 2 at the Sheema Classic distance at Sha Tin. He beat last year's Sheema Classic winner, Vengeance of Rain, in their last two meetings last spring, was beaten only a half-length by three-time British Group 1 winner Ramonti in the Hong Kong Cup in December, and earned high marks for his convincing score last time in the Hong Kong Gold Cup.

Because Hong Kong conducts racing from September to June, Viva Pataca is now well into his campaign, facing Northern Hemisphere types, most of whom are in the early spring of their annual development. He could have both a conditioning and a class edge on his 15 rivals.

But the Sheema Classic will hardly be a walkover, as it includes eight winners of 25 Group 1 races. Last year's third-place finisher, Youmzain, has improved since then, with second-place finishes to Dylan Thomas in both the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Trainer Michael Channon, however, has again decided to bring the 5-year-old Youmzain to Dubai without benefit of a prep race, which could hinder his chances.

The same might be said of ace international hitman Doctor Dino. The winner of the Man o' War Stakes at Belmont and the Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin, the French-based Doctor Dino runs well fresh but has never faced such stiff competition in his seasonal debut.

Quijano was fifth, beaten only 2 3/4 lengths, in the Dubai City of Gold three weeks ago when he was spotting three who beat him that day - Gower Song, Mourilyan, and Oracle West - nine pounds each. At equal weights, he will be more dangerous, especially considering his 1 1/2-length runner-up finish to Doctor Dino in the Hong Kong Vase.

Argentine champion Latency, a dull eighth in Round 3 of the 1 1/4-mile Maktoum Challenge on dirt, should do better going 12 furlongs on turf but is stepping up in class.

Even stripped of the presence of Godolphin's four-time Group 1 winner Ramonti, the 1 1/8-mile Dubai Duty Free field numbers 10 winners of 27 Group 1 races. New Zealand's champion mare Seachange tops the list with seven triumphs at the highest level, but she is just 1 for 6 outside of her homeland, that score coming in an Australian Group 3. She was a close sixth from an impossibly wide draw in the Group 2 Jebel Hatta last time but looks in tough.

Another Hong Kong invader has potential as a value play. Floral Pegasus chased Viva Pataca home in the Hong Kong Gold Cup and has finished second to ace miler Good Ba Ba in two of his last five starts. The 6-year-old Floral Pegasus, trained by Tony Cruz of Silent Witness fame, must be strongly considered in all exotic wagers.

Expect a very close finish in the Duty Free. Likely to be involved are Godolphin's Champion Stakes winner Literato, although he will be making his seasonal debut, as will the stable's consistent Creachadoir. Last year's runner-up, the course and distance specialist Linngari, can be forgiven his fourth-place finish last time in the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort because he was spotting all of his rivals six pounds. Lord Admiral and Archipenko both looked like world beaters in their last Nad Al Sheba victories, but the class of the field is the French filly Darjina.

Trained by Alain de-Royer-Dupre to three Group 1 triumphs last year at 3, Darjina was unlucky not to win the Hong Kong Mile and is being sent to Dubai by owner Aga Khan with a purpose. If she runs to something approximating her best, Darjina will be difficult to beat.

Post position will play a role in the Dubai Duty Free with horses drawn wide at a disadvantage, but almost anything in the race could win. Another to note is the in-form Admire Aura, the Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen winner who is attempting to follow in the Japanese footsteps of last year's winner, his former stablemate Admire Moon.

American-trained horses have won the last four and seven of the last eight Dubai Golden Shaheens, its six furlongs on dirt the ideal American distance even on a straight course and in a country where raceday medication is not allowed. This year's American posse - Barbecue Eddie, Benny the Bull, Bushwacker, Esperamos, and Idiot Proof - are not quite as strong as in previous years and may find themselves at the mercy of an ex-American, Diabolical. Last year's A.G. Vanderbilt winner, Diabolical impressed mightily in winning the Golden Shaheen course and distance prep, cruising to a 4 1/2-length victory in the Mahab Al Shimaal. That margin puts him up with the best American raiders of recent years. If Diabolical can hold off the late charge of Benny the Bull, the race will be his.

Godolphin appears to have a stranglehold on the Godolphin Mile with the first two home in the Burj Nahaar course and distance prep in Elusive Warning and Blackat Blackitten. They handed World Cup hopeful Asiatic Boy his first Nad Al Sheba defeat in that race and appear to have an edge over the American horses Barcola and Diamond Stripes. A two-time winner at Aqueduct, Elusive Warning is an improving type who could soon be competing in Grade 1 races Stateside.

The UAE Derby is a wide-open affair. Saeed bin Suroor will saddle three for Godolphin, among them Nashua Stakes winner Etched, who disappointed badly in his first outing of the year. Numaany may have a better chance as he improved to be a close third behind the Mike de Kock-trained pair of Southern Hemisphere 3-year-olds, Royal Vintage and Honour Devil. Southern Hemisphere 3-year-olds have won three of the last five UAE derbies and should do so again, despite the presence of a first-ever American trainee in Massive Drama. Unsuccessful in three graded stakes on synthetic surfaces for Bob Baffert in California, Massive Drama is now with Dale Romans, who is charting unknown territory.

One to note is the Godolphin-controlled filly Cocoa Beach. The winner of both the UAE 1000 Guineas and the UAE Oaks by wide margins, she is an exotic factor who should make her presence felt later this year in America.

Can anything beat Curlin in the Dubai World Cup? An easy winner beating nothing in his Nad Al Sheba prep four weeks ago, he has been known to throw in the odd dull effort, witness the Kentucky Derby and the Haskell Invitational. In Jalil, he will be facing an improving 4-year-old who has been honed for this race by his Godolphin masters. A full brother to After Market, Jalil must improve again and hope for a subpar effort from Curlin to land the world's richest race, but that is hardly an impossibility.

Japanese invader Vermilion is 3 for 3 since his fourth-place World Cup finish last year, but appears to be in the race for second or third. The World Cup wild card could be Happy Boy. Purchased by Godolphin after his nine-length score in Round 1 of the Maktoum Challenge, he is an exotic play, as is Asiatic Boy, who could threaten Curlin if he recovers from his disappointing third last time in the Burj Nahaar.