One More Perfect Day In The Desert

 By Michele MacDonald

       Even though another “filly” has arrived in Dubai to share the Dubai World Cup (UAE-gr. I) spotlight, champion Royal Delta enjoyed one more perfect day in the desert on March 28.

Caption: Royal Delta
Photo: Michele MacDonald

        From the time she zipped through three furlongs down the stretch as a light sharpener for the world’s richest race until post positions were drawn more than eight hours later, trainer Bill Mott wouldn’t have changed a thing.

       Joined by owner Benjamin Leon, Mott watched Royal Delta float around the all-weather track on an overcast morning as assistant and exercise rider Leana Willaford let the big filly lengthen her stride.

      “She went very easy,” Mott said, smiling.

     “She was very kind going around,” added Willaford. “We just let her stretch her legs and open up her lungs a little down the stretch. As usual, her ears were pricked the whole way around and she came home to the barn as happy as can be.”

       Mott had started the day with an intuitive feeling that he was going to get first choice in the elaborate post position draw conducted for the World Cup in the afternoon, and his instincts proved almost eerily on target. When Royal Delta’s name was called before any others, he bounded to the stage and put a colored card of her Besilu Stables silks into gate seven of a large illustration of the starting gate.

       “Seven has always been a lucky number for me,” Mott told the crowd of World Cup owners, trainers, jockeys and others. “I hope she can place herself well and get a good stalking position.”

       When asked his expectations of the champion filly, who is bidding to become the first female runner to prevail in the world’s richest race, Mott was resolute.

       “The reason we’re here is to see if we can win,” he declared. “I can’t predict the outcome but she is doing really well—well enough to win a race like this.”

       Mott has been a lightning rod for media attention since arriving in Dubai on the morning of March 27. His exploits with Cigar, who won the inaugural World Cup in 1996, have been revived and retold often, including at the post position draw ceremony, and he is rightly given credit as helping establish the World Cup as the international fixture it has become by taking the two-time Horse of the Year to the desert when it seemed a huge risk.

       Even though much is different today regarding the challenge of the Dubai World Cup, there are some clear parallels between what Mott experienced with Cigar and what he is facing with Royal Delta since she also is reaching into uncharted territory.

     “The entirety of Dubai has changed—it’s a totally different scene,” Mott reflected of the city’s enormous growth since Cigar’s victory. “But the reason we’re here hasn’t changed. We’re here to win a horse race and we’re going to give it our best shot.”

*                                            *                                        *

       Not long after Royal Delta completed her track work, that other female star of the Dubai World Cup walked out on the track, immediately captivating the attention of anyone catching a glimpse of her.

       Wearing a hot pink flak jacket over a white shirt and jeans with a sparkly rhinestone belt and a pink pompom atop her helmet, Chantal Sutherland sent cameras clicking and humming as she inspected the Meydan all-weather surface and greeted Emirates Racing Authority starter Shane Ryan and his starting gate crew.

     Playfully obliging photographers, Sutherland climbed up into the gate, straddling a starting stall, and posed like the professional model she is when she is not riding in races. She later struck several other poses, including putting her hand in a fist as if she was ready to fight, albeit with a mischievous smile lighting up her face.

     Like Royal Delta, Sutherland also is after a piece of history. She will become the first woman to ride in the Dubai World Cup when she takes up the reins on Game On Dude and, of course, she also is aiming to win.

Caption: Chantal Sutherland aboard Florentine Ruler
Photo: Michele MacDonald

      “It’s exciting to be here. It’s something you can only dream of,” Sutherland exclaimed in one of several impromptu television interviews. “It’s an honor and a privilege.”

     Sutherland also took a tour of the Meydan track on Florentine Ruler, a Kentucky-bred gelding provided by United Arab Emirates champion trainer Ali Rashid Al Raihe and owned by Emirates Racing Authority director Malih Lahej Al Basti. Afterward, she said the track reminds her of Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track, where Game On Dude was just nosed out in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) in a strong effort last year.     

     Accompanied by Game On Dude’s co-owner Bernie Schiappa, Sutherland left the track to visit trainer Bob Baffert at The City Hospital in Dubai, where he is recovering from a heart attack suffered within 24 hours of his arrival on March 25.

     Later, she watched Schiappa and Baffert’s son Bode hang up the last number left in the draw—number 14—for Game On Dude, but said she was unfazed by having to start from the far outside on the gelding, who sometimes misses the break.

      “It’s OK—no problem,” Sutherland said. “Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”

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