Saturday marks one of those days on the racing calendar too big for one man. Even Rick Dutrow had to make a choice last year, stay at Gulfstream to watch Big Brown annihilate his Florida Derby foes or trek overseas to oversee a pair of eventual winners on the Dubai World Cup program.
For the first six months of the year, my intense handicapping focus lies with the 3-year-olds across America, so I feel comfortable with the goings-on at Gulfstream. But for a look halfway around the world, I turned to a trusted friend in the blogosphere who follows the trends and results of the entire Dubai Racing Carnival much closer than I. That's what we horseplayers do, after all, right?
FLORIDA DERBY PREVIEW
Two of the past three Kentucky Derby winners blazed the Florida Derby path to Louisville, Barbaro and Big Brown, so it's with great import that we watch Saturday's $750,000 event from Gulfstream. The $750,000 purse is a big key, too. In past years, the $1 million purse put its third-place finisher ($100,000 for the show) on the cusp of the Kentucky Derby's graded-stakes threshold, which annually falls between $100,000 and about $130,000. Third money won't get you the honey this year, just $75,000. So it's all about a one-two finish for a horse like Dunkirk, who makes his stakes debut.
Whether you prefer Dunkirk or Fountain of Youth trifecta returnees Quality Road, Theregoesjojo and Beethoven, might have a lot to do with the draw. Keep in mind that in the 29 races at nine furlongs held from opening day through the beginning of Florida Derby week, that just one horse has won outside post No. 7 all meeting. That horse? Dunkirk, who left from the No. 8-hole in his Feb. 19 allowance win. As Big Brown taught us last year, a superior horse can overcome that. But he must be vastly superior to his competition. Overall, 20 of 29 races (69 percent) at the Florida Derby distance this season have been won by the inside four posts. We'll see how the pills pull out in Wednesday's draw, and just how good the top-end players in this field can be.
Distance will be a chief handicapping point for another reason beyond the track configuration. The Fountain of Youth trio stretches out from a one-turn mile to a true route. Hands down, the top trainer at the meet in routes has been Theregoejojo's skipper Ken McPeek, who has won a meet-best 16 route races. Todd Pletcher, handler of Dunkirk, rates second in the colony with 12. Meanwhile, John Ward (Beethoven) is 2-for-6 in limited tries, while Jimmy Jerkens (Quality Road) is just 1-for-9.
Clearly this looks like a four-horse race with a handful of fillers, unless trainer Rick Dutrow makes an eleventh-hour insertion of Danger to Society, who has been training very well in recent weeks since coming to his care from McPeek. Wouldn't that add some spice?
We'll break it all down in depth in Friday's usual home for Triple Crown analysis, Countdown to the Crown. But I can think of no better way to start Saturday's Florida Derby Day than by waking up to the simulcast of the festivities from Dubai. Jeremy Plonk
DUBAI WORLD CUP PREVIEW PART I
If you aren't stoked about this coming Saturday, you need to find a new avocation. While America's focus turns to Gulfstream Park and Florida Derby Day, the rest of the world will be celebrating the Dubai World Cup, arguably the greatest one-day gathering of international horseflesh on Planet Racing.
This week, ESPN.com will take a two-part look at the Dubai Racing Carnival. First, we will share a few DRC/DWC trends that may prove helpful on Saturday. Second, we'll return Friday with our weekly Horseplayerpro.com/ESPN.com Scouting Reports for handicapping the specific races.
The first trend to consider: be wary of Godolphin runners. Despite Big Blue's unparalleled success at the Carnival each year, their record on World Cup night has been downright abysmal. Since 1999, Godolphin's overall DRC win rate has been an astonishing 38 percent. However, in the World Cup's premiere Group 1 races the Golden Shaheen, Duty Free, Sheema Classic and World Cup Team Godolphin's record is an anemic 58: 6-3-2 for a winning percentage of 10, and an in-the-money percentage of only 19.
Even more perplexing is that of Big Blue's six Group 1 World Cup night wins, five have come in the big race itself with Almutawakel (1999), Dubai Millennium (2000), Street Cry (2002), Moon Ballad (2003) and Electrocutionist (2006). Godolphin's only other Group 1 win on this historic card was in the Sheema Classic in 2003 with Sulamani. In 20 tries since 1999 with multiple runners (and more often than not the post-time favorites), Sheikh MoMo & Co. have yet to win either the six-furlong Golden Shaheen on dirt or the nine-panel Duty Free on turf. Most telling, perhaps, is that in the past two World Cup nights, Team Godolphin got completely blanked 0 for 14! You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find the last Big Blue winner on a World Cup card, and that was Electrocutionist.
Why the drought? The theory here is that Goldophin over-exposes its stars during the multi-week Carnival, such that by World Cup night they already have done their best work. Perhaps that's why Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford held out big guns Diabolical, Gayego and Two Step Salsa until Super Thursday, and was doing the same with Midshipman before he was injured and Vineyard Haven before he laid a giant egg. Diabolical, Gayego and Two Step Salsa should be tight as drums and ready to rock on Saturday, albeit at likely under-valued odds.
As for Godolphin horses Desert Party, My Indy, Alexandros, and Kirklees, , all have had multiple runs and big wins at this year's Carnival, and most figure to be over-bet on Saturday, especially those ridden by Frankie Dettori. You might want to keep in mind Godolphin's previous history and limited success with such horses on World Cup night before singling any in your horizontal wagers.
Another trend worth noting is one with which you doubtless are familiar, but is worth reminding: track bias. On Nad Al Sheeba's sand-based dirt track, tactical speed accounts for about 80 percent of winners. With its extreme kickback and bizarre, almost v-shaped final turn, making-up ground through the lane is extremely difficult, despite a stretch that measures a staggering 1,968 feet (600m). Fair Grounds, by comparison, is 1,346 feet! Don't be fooled. In fact, so prevalent is front lick that if your charge isn't within two or three lengths of the lead in the first 100 meters of the stretch run, you have virtually no chance of winning. Watch past replays from Nad al Sheba and you'll see what I mean.
Turf racing is the complete opposite. Early-running turf winners are exceedingly rare at any distance, although the freakish filly Front House did it on Super Thursday against the boys from post No. 16. Still, you'd be well-advised to tread lightly with eager, early types on the lawn and lean heavily toward the classic mid-pack to late-running "cover-up" types who typically dominate European turf racing in general, and Nad al Sheba in particular.
That said, as of this writing, the forecast for Dubai calls for showers all week! It has been 10 years since the Cup was run in wet/yielding conditions, and both racing surfaces have been redone since then. With no form to go on, my educated guess would be that the established biases of speed on dirt and closers on turf would be even more pronounced. However, if the sand track is in the process of drying-out, that condition typically enhances the chances of late runners, even on ridiculously speed-favoring courses like here in the States. Use your local knowledge and experience to your best advantage.
Finally, for the best and most up-to-date coverage of the World Cup, visit The Racing Post online Europe's version of the Daily Racing Form and the Emirates Racing website, where you'll find the results of every Carnival race run in 2009. Of particular note are the Stewards' Reports at the bottom of every result. While our Equibase charts provide cursory summaries of the running, their Stewards' Reports are where the phrase "off-the-charts" was born, as you'll note from the typical example that follows:
CONTEST (IRE) (J Murtagh) and NIGHTS CROSS (IRE) (G Hind) both over-raced in the early stages. Approaching the 1000m, BUACHAILL DONA (IRE) (A Nicholls) commenced to over-race and had to be steadied from MISS GORICA (IRE) (T Durcan) on several occasions. CONTEST (IRE) (J Murtagh), which was following, was inconvenienced at this stage. ASSET (IRE) (L Dettori) raced wide in the early and middle stages. Near the 800m, CONTEST (IRE) shifted outwards bumping NOTA BENE (GB) (R Hughes). MANDOBI (IRE) (W Buick) was unable to obtain a clear run in the straight. CONTEST (IRE) was held up for clear running in the straight and near the 200m was taken to the outside of ASSET (IRE) (L Dettori) to obtain a clear run. Shortly after this, CONTEST (IRE) steadied to the inside of NOTA BENE (GB) and shifted inwards causing ASSET (IRE), which was tiring, to be eased. BUACHAILL DONA (IRE) returned having bled from both nostrils. Trainer Mr D Nicholls was advised that BUACHAILL DONA (IRE) would not be permitted to start until it had passed a satisfactory gallop test in the presence of an ERA Veterinary Officer, to be conducted not before 21 days from the date of bleeding. A post race veterinary examination of THIRD SET (IRE) (A Ajtebi) revealed the gelding to be lame in the left hind. Trainer Mr M bin Shafya was advised that a Veterinary Certificate would be required prior to the gelding being permitted to be entered to race again. Jockey G Hind (NIGHTS CROSS [IRE]) was reprimanded in relation to using his whip forward off the shoulder when held in the forehand position. Jockey W Smith was fined AED 3000 under ERA instruction 8(ii)(g) for using his whip on INSTANT RECALL (IRE) in a manner which did not allow it time to respond.
Don't forget to check back Friday for our Horseplayerpro.com/ESPN.com Scouting Reports of the Dubai World Cup program. O.J. "Bud" Pettingill