01/04/2016 3:44PM

World Cup Carnival kicks off Thursday in Dubai

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Shigeki Kikkawa
California Chrome works six furlongs Saturday morning at Santa Anita.

Meydan Racecourse in Dubai hosts the first of 11 Dubai World Cup Carnival cards Thursday night, a program highlighted by the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1.

The World Cup Carnival culminates March 26 with the $10 million Dubai World Cup, a card that should draw heavy North American interest again this year.

Meydan, which opened with a Tapeta surface main track in 2010, removed its synthetic surface after the 2014 season and conducted main-track races on dirt during 2015. That decision was widely viewed as a means of restoring flagging North American interest in the Dubai World Cup card, and while there were more overseas runners shipped for World Cup Night last year, that number seems likely to increase substantially in 2016.

Chief among the horses whose connections have expressed interest in a World Cup bid is California Chrome, who finished second in the 2015 edition behind the shocking winner Prince Bishop and has not started since. California Chrome has trained with great energy at Santa Anita for his comeback, and trainer Art Sherman has mentioned the possibility of sending California Chrome to Dubai in February to race once before the World Cup. That was the plan so successfully charted in 2008 by trainer Steve Asmussen with Curlin, who won his local prep race before scoring a smashing World Cup win.

But California Chrome is far from the only top U.S. horse under World Cup consideration: Effinex, Frosted, and Keen Ice also have been mentioned as possible runners.

Until the so-called Super Saturday card March 5, Carnival programs come every Thursday evening. The six Thoroughbred races on this Thursday’s program are headed by the Group 2, $250,000 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1, a dirt race over about a mile that drew familiar names such as Surfer, Frankiefourfingers, and Prayer for Relief when an early round of entries was taken Monday. Final entries for all the Thursday races were to come Tuesday, when post positions and riders were to be assigned.

Godolphin horses and those trained by Mike de Kock will win more than their share of races at the Carnival, as usual, but trainer Doug Watson, an American expat, had a great run on the Meydan dirt last season. The dirt surface caused a minor furor last winter, with some horsemen complaining that kickback was compromising horses racing from off the pace, but the track had leveled a bit by the time the big races came around in March.