Having fun traveling with your horse

By Robert Kieckhefer

   American horses haven't been doing real well on the international scene lately. The connections of Si Sage hope to strike a more positive note in Sunday's Singapore Airlines International Cup (Sing-I). But, if not, they're having a good time anyway.

   Meanwhile, Meydan Racecourse in Dubai is getting busy replacing its Tapeta surface with real dirt. While they don't say so out loud, this is at least in part a reaction to the precipitous decline in American fortunes -- and participation -- on World Cup night.

   Let's look at Singapore first.

   Jed Cohen is the owner of Red Baron's Barn, the Southern California operation that campaigns Si Sage. As would any owner, he smiled when he picked gate No. 4 for the 4-year-old, French-bred gelding.

Jed Cohen shows souvenir plate that held gate No 4 for his runner in Singapore Airlines International Cup.

   Despite the favorable draw, Si Sage will be an outsider in a tough field of 12 that includes last year's 1-2 finishers -- the imposing Hong Kong duo of Military Attack and Dan Excel. Si Sage, by contrast, has but three wins from his 14 career starts and all of those came in France.

   No matter to Cohen. The horse will have all four hooves on the track, just like all the others, and he will have David Flores in the irons. And, like any good owner, Cohen figures Si Sage had excuses for his third-place finish in the Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita last Boxing Day and for a runner-up showing behind Vagabond Shoes in February in the San Marcos (gr. IIT).

   But, if nothing good happens on the track Sunday at Kranji, Cohen, 81, a Los Angeles-area investment advisor, said he will have enjoyed the experience anyway.

Si Sage, photo courtesy of Singapore Turf Club.

   "My family is here with me," he said. "I've traveled many places around the world and people started asking me where I'd like to go that I hadn't been. I thought about it and I said, 'Singapore.' And then this came up."

   Cohen's long-time trainer, Darrell Vienna, said a Singapore recruiter came around the backstretch at Santa Anita looking for potential runners and he put two and two together -- eventually coming up with gate No. 4.

  Vienna is looking for his first overseas win, though he came close when Echo Eddie finished second to Caller One in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) 12 years ago.

   And, speaking of Dubai, some of the international racing fraternity gathered in steamy Singapore are scratching their heads over the surface switch at Meydan, scheduled to be in place in time for the start of the 2015 Carnival in January.

   Saeed Al Tayer, chairman and CEO of the Meydan Group said the switch "will be best for the future of Meydan racing and the Dubai World Cup Carnival. In the coming year we will celebrate the 20th running of the Dubai World Cup and the track will be the natural surface that proved so successful during the first 14 years of this magnificent race day."

   Runners from most parts of the world other than the United States would argue the existing Tapeta surface proved plenty successful for them during the past few years but that wasn't the topic up for discussion.

   Through the World Cup meeting's first 14 years at the old Nad al Sheeba track, starting with Cigar's victory over Soul of the Matter, American horses were, if not dominant, at least consistently in the mix. Silver Charm, Captain Steve, Pleasantly Perfect, Curlin and Well Armed all lifted the World Cup for the American side and space prohibits detailing the long list of other U.S. horses who succeeded in the rich supporting races.

   Not so much after the move to Meydan and its Tapeta surface.

   Animal Kingdom's victory in 2013 was an exception but he was an exceptional runner. But beyond that, the list of American also-rans, including Royal Delta and Game On Dude, runs on. This year, only a trio of -- with apologies -- secondary-rank U.S. horses even bothered to make the trip to the United Arab Emirates.

   While many owners and trainers from the rest of the world loved the Tapeta, it just didn't seem to suit the American runners. Why? There have been plenty of theories, including the observation that even the relatively gentle desert heat of March could make the surface sticky enough to cling to the soles of a human's shoes. Although that would be true for all the competitors, wouldn't it?

   Whatever the reason, it would seem the flight of the Americans finally got through to Meydan officials, likely through Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, master of Godolphin Racing and generally the boss. American horses put this event on the map when Jerry Bailey booted Cigar across the line first in 1996 and that helped put Dubai itself on the map.

   Will the new dirt surface help bring Americans back to Dubai? Would any of the current crop -- Will Take Charge, Game On Dude, etc. -- have made the trip this March for different footing? Conversely, will the switch discourage prospective World Cup runners who mostly compete over grass in their homelands?

   Much of the feeling in Singapore is that it's risky to tip the scales back in favor of American runners when, in fact, the rest of the world seems to be producing better competitors for the international stage. Of course, there aren't that many Americans in Singapore, other than the Cohen-Vienna bunch, so the sample is skewed.

   Take a look at the replay of the 2008 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), run on a synthetic track at Santa Anita. You'll see Curlin, winner of the Dubai World Cup just seven months earelier on the Nad al Sheeba dirt, taking the lead turning for home, only to be swallowed up in deep stretch by grass-running Euros Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator.

   Does that prove anything? Nah. There will be a nice contingent of U.S. horses at Royal Ascot next month and they make an impression. Verrazano could run well in his first start in England. And maybe Si Sage can surprise everyone and scramble the thinking a little bit with an upset on Saturday at Kranji.

   If not, having a good time might continue to be the best reason to take American horses overseas.  


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