Two meetings to look at on Thursday, with my focus at Shepparton and Redcliffe. Down below are the best bets for the respective programs.
The focus of international racing fans turns to the Middle East this weekend for the world’s richest race meeting, the Dubai World Cup meeting at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
As I write this, I am sitting in the grandstand overlooking Meydan. It is the world’s most extravagant racecourse, but it is looking perfect ahead of Saturday’s card.
The Dubai World Cup meeting rates as one of the most international cards on the calendar each year. It vies for “world championship” status with the Breeders’ Cup meet in the United States in late October or early November and the Hong Kong International Races in December.
In many respects, it is the world championship by default. The Hong Kong meeting is considered the pinnacle on turf, but it comes at an awkward time of year. Horses from the UK, Europe and the United States are at the end of their campaigns and the meeting is often an afterthought.
And while the Breeders’ Cup covers the whole spectrum of flat racing, its place on the calendar means it will never attract the best from the Asia-Pacific region.
Given that takes in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore – five of the bigger racing jurisdictions in the world – it can never be considered racing’s world championships.
That will never stop the Americans though, who proudly tout their championship meeting in much the same way they promote the World Series in baseball.
Dubai is also at an awkward time for horses from Europe and America, as it comes at the start of their season. However, it is also more likely to be targeted by connections and is very rarely an afterthought.
Given it slots in well with racing in the Asia-Pacific region, there is no doubt it is as close to a world championship meeting as is possible.
This year, Australian interest across the whole meeting is at one of the highest levels in years, despite the fact there is not one Australian-trained runner.
Seven of the nine races feature horses who have at one time or other raced in Australia, with the only two exceptions the first two on the card – the Group 1 Dubai Kahayla Classic (2000m) for Purebred Arabian gallopers, and the Group 2 Godolphin Mile (1600m).
The highlight, for obvious reasons, is Cox Plate winner Ocean Park. He tackles one of the night’s features, the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free (1800m).
He is the first Cox Plate winner to run in Dubai the year after success at Moonee Valley since Sunline took on the same race at the old Nad Al Sheba track in 2001.
That year saw her produce one of the gutsiest runs of her stellar career. Frankie Dettori on Godolphin galloper Slickly wanted to ensure she didn’t have her own way in front and pushed her the entire way.
It is also the second year in a row that a Cox Plate winner has lined up in Dubai, after So You Think contested the Group 1 Dubai World Cup (2000m) last year – 18 months after his second Cox Plate win.
Much in the vein of Crowded House, Russell Crowe and Phar Lap, Australians have claimed Ocean Park as one of their own in the lead up to Saturday night.
He completed his final gallop on the turf track Wednesday morning, although it didn’t quite go to plan after he became uncomfortable on ground softened by overnight watering.
Trainer Gary Hennessy was bullish about the horse this morning, and as the days progress it seems his confidence grows.
The form out of the Cox Plate looks strong enough for this race, with runner up All Too Hard, third placed Pierro, fifth placed Shoot Out, seventh placed Green Moon and 10th placed Happy Trails all winning Group 1 races subsequently.
Although Ocean Park was disappointing upon his return in New Zealand in the Group 1 Haunui Farm Classic (1600m), he bounced back with a very strong victory in the Group 1 New Zealand Stakes (2000m).
However, what was noticeable in those two starts – particularly at Ellerslie last time out – was his discomfort racing in a clockwise direction.
After sweeping up to the leaders four and five deep on the turn, he crossed the line on the fence after hanging in badly.
In hindsight, it becomes obvious. Go back and watch last year’s Group 1 Rosehill Guineas (2000m) – he hung in slightly about a furlong from home, which probably cost him the race.
Back to a counter-clockwise direction, on his left lead leg, he should have every opportunity to record his first victory in the northern hemisphere.
Irish jockey Johnny Murtagh has his first ride on the son of Thorn Park.
The horse with the biggest connection to Australia is Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen (1200m) favourite Mental.
The winner of last year’s Group 1 Patinack Farm Classic (1200m) over the Melbourne Cup Carnival, Mental was transferred from Peter Snowden to Mahmood Al Zarooni after the spring carnival.
The son of Lonhro has had one start in Dubai for an impressive win in the Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint (1200m) on the all weather track in mid-February.
While Sepoy had better credentials for the same race last year, the one thing he did not have was form on the Tapeta, the synthetic surface that forms Meydan’s all weather track.
It showed as he struggled home a well-beaten 10th behind Krypton Factor in last year’s Golden Shaheen.
The fact that Mental has already won on the Tapeta, defeating many of the horses he meets again on Saturday, means he is already in a far more favourable position when it comes to tackling this race.
The Victoria Racing Club, in particular, will be hoping for a Mental victory on Saturday given their attempts to lure international runners for the Patinack.
Caulfield and Melbourne Cup winner Dunaden adds another Australian element to Dubai World Cup night.
Only one Caulfield Cup winner has competed in Dubai the following year, with 2004 winner Elvstroem going on to give Australia its first World Cup night success in the Dubai Duty Free in 2005.
The French galloper tackles a strong field in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic (2400m), including Group 1 Japan Cup (2400m) winner Gentildonna, last year’s runner up St Nicholas Abbey and Group 1 Irish St Leger (1m 6f – a2800m) winner Royal Diamond.
He comes here off two lacklustre runs following his Caulfield Cup success – in the Melbourne Cup and the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) – and he looks unlikely to get the pace he needs to be competitive here.
It looks a similar story for his old nemesis Red Cadeaux, who hasn’t raced since he won the Hong Kong Vase.
He has been thrown in the deep end, taking on the big guns in the feature of the night, the Dubai World Cup.
It is a stunning choice, given the last time he raced at 10 furlongs (2000m) or below was when he contested a nine furlong (1800m) maiden at Ripon as a three year old in May 2009. On that occasion, he finished third.
In a race devoid of pace, he looks unlikely to add to his big race haul.
A third Melbourne Cup runner from last year lines up here, in another race entirely. Godolphin’s Cavalryman finished 12th behind Green Moon last year, but has had one run to prepare him for the Group 3 Dubai Gold Cup (3200m).
He is a quirky horse who tends to mix his form, but if the real Cavalryman turns up, he can win this staying affair which is not overly strong.
However, Australian Group 1 form is not a requirement to compete on Dubai World Cup night. Take Zahee, for example.
Most Australian racing fans would not be familiar with Zahee, who now races for champion South African trainer Mike de Kock.
Owned by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, whose horses race in the renowned “yellow, royal blue V and cap” colours, he was trained by Mick Price in Australia. Price also has the likes of Ajeeb and Al Aneed for the same owner.
He had five starts in Victoria last year for three wins at Traralgon, Kilmore and Mornington. He also recorded a second at Werribee to the smart Velonski.
Since being transferred to Dubai, he’s finished fourth over 1400m, third in the Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas (1600m) and second in the Listed Al Bastakiya (1900m).
He could definitely provide the most surprising Australian link to Dubai World Cup night – who knew Traralgon form could shape up!
Starspangledbanner is the final horse to have raced in Australia who runs on Saturday night.
The 2009 Group 1 Caulfield Guineas (1600m) winner has not raced in Australia since the 2010 Group 1 Newmarket Handicap (1200m), won by Wanted. Following that race, he was transferred from Leon Corstens to Aidan O’Brien.
Retired to stud at the end of 2010, he was found to have fertility issues and so returned to the track last August.
He has not shown much on the track since, and this looks a difficult task for him.
He contests the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint (1000m), a race Australia won last year with Ortensia.
There is likely to be some Australian connection to the winner in the Al Quoz Sprint, given the number of Australian links in the race.
Two of the horses are trained by expat Australians – the United Kingdom’s Medicean Man is trained by South Australian Jeremy Gask, while Singapore’s Mr Big (who is Australian-bred) is trained by Michael Freedman.
Mr Big will be ridden by Zac Purton, while Hong Kong’s evergreen Kiwi-bred Joy and Fun will be partnered by Tye Angland. Both jockeys only have the one ride on the card.
Hong Kong is also represented by the Australian-bred Eagle Regiment, although he is under an injury cloud and may not take his place on Saturday night.
In fact, Australian bred horses can be found across the card, most notably in the Dubai Duty Free.
Taking on Ocean Park is South Africa’s champion mare Igugu, who was sold at the 2009 Inglis Melbourne Premier Yearling Sale. She has won South Africa’s biggest races, including the Group 1 Durban July (2200m) in 2011 and the Group 1 J & B Met (2000m) last year.
She has been disappointing in two starts in Dubai to date but is widely expected to improve dramatically here.
Also in the race is another Australian-bred South African, Mushreq. Bred by Shadwell Stud Australasia, he is by Flying Spur out of a half sister to Group 1 Sir Rupert Clarke Stakes (1400m) winner Rewaaya.
He went through the 2010 Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Stale, only to be bought back by Sheikh Hamdan.
And to add one final link to Australia, half of leading Dubai World Cup contender Animal Kingdom is now owned by John Messara’s Arrowfield Stud.
A winner of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby (1 1/4 miles – a 2000m) in 2011, injury has curtailed much of his career since. However, he was a slashing second in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile (1m – a1600m) in November and if he runs to that form, he will go close.
He will stand at stud in the Hunter Valley, beginning in August.
Even though our trainers aren’t represented, the Australian flag will still fly proudly on Saturday night as part of this world championship meeting. And there is plenty to cheer for!
— Andrew Hawkins (@AndrewNJHawkins) March 28, 2013