Now that Sheikh Mohammed and the Godolphin braintrust have decided to take the conventional route to the Kentucky Derby by prepping in America and no longer are intent on winning the roses with a horse trained in Dubai, beware of the boys in blue on the first Saturday in May.
With their American stable, under the care of Rick Mettee, recently disbanded, the Darley-turned-Godolphin horses now are free to remain with their original trainers instead of automatically racing under the name of trainer Saeed bin Suroor. In the past, trainers such as Kiaran McLaughlin, Eoin Harty, and Tom Albertrani realized that if their young Darley horses developed into potential stars, they most likely were going to bid them farewell and watch them march over to Mettee’s barn or head straight to Dubai. The one who somehow escaped that fate was Albertrani, who managed to keep Bernardini in the Darley colors and in his barn throughout his sensational 3-year-old campaign that earned him an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
But that was the rare exception. McLaughlin had to give up budding stars such as Regal Ransom, Girolamo, and Etched. Harty lost Street Cry, Desert Party, and E Dubai, and Bob Baffert had to say goodbye to Midshipman after winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile and Del Mar Futurity with the son of Unbridled’s Song. Private purchases such as Discreet Cat and Express Tour, among others, were sent straight to Dubai.
The one horse who returned to America that looked to have a big chance in the Kentucky Derby was Street Cry, who suffered an injury shortly after arriving at Churchill Downs and was forced to miss the race. Street Cry would go on to sire Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense for owner James Tafel and trainer Carl Nafzger, as well as the great Zenyatta.
Since 1999, Sheikh Mohammed has run seven horses in the Kentucky Derby after prepping in Dubai and failed to finish in the money with any of them. His best finish was a sixth.
Now, 13 years after his first failed attempt with Worldly Manner, Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin have leading Derby contenders Alpha, a son of Bernardini trained by McLaughlin, and Out of Bounds, a son of Discreet Cat trained by Harty. Both colts began their careers in the Darley colors, but graduated to Godolphin blue, while remaining with their original trainers. McLaughlin also has the Bernardini colt Consortium, who showed great promise before faltering in the slop in the Holy Bull Stakes. He’ll be given another chance in the Gotham Stakes, as Alpha waits for the Wood Memorial after winning the Count Fleet and Withers Stakes. Out of Bounds, winner of the Sham Stakes, will be one of the favorites, if not the favorite, in the San Felipe Stakes. Albertrani got in the act as well, saddling Darley’s homebred Bernardini colt Cold Cast to a mile and 40-yard maiden victory in his career debut at Tampa Bay last weekend.
“Once it was established that there was no requirement for Saeed to have a stable in North America it made sense to keep the Godolphin horses with their original trainers,” said Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford. “Obviously with Meydan having an artificial track it is right to keep some of the dirt bred horses racing in America, but there will still be some that come to Dubai in the future to be prepared for winter racing before travelling back to North America. I think it is more a question of fitting the horses around the best schedule that will suit them as individuals. It is about maximising their potential, but it must be remembered that there is a high class and very valuable series for 3-year-olds here in Dubai and some of our North American horses in the future could easily suit that program. When it is decided which horses come and which ones stay we will consider each individual’s requirements and ability. Alpha, Out of Bounds, and Consortium, and a number of others, all seemed to be best suited to North American racing and that is why they didn’t come to Dubai.”
One of McLaughlin’s main objectives with Alpha was straightening out the colt’s head when it came to the starting gate, where he had shown a tendency to act up. Judging from the Withers, that problem has been corrected.
“We’ve been schooling him a lot in the gate and he’s done really well,” McLaughlin said. “The Withers was an important race because it’s graded and you don’t get to run in the Derby unless you have those graded stakes earnings. Our stomachs were upset when Consortium didn’t run well in the slop at Gulfstream, so we’re thankful for Alpha.”
Alpha, who was sent off as the 3-10 favorite, broke from post 6 on the far outside and took up a comfortable position in third behind the pace-setting How Do I Win, who set fractions of :23 3/5, :48, and 1:12 3/5. When jockey Ramon Dominguez asked him for his run, he cruised up alongside the leaders at the top of the stretch and quickly opened a four-length advantage at the eighth pole. Dominguez, who had given Alpha three right-handed taps of the whip, put the whip away and hand-rode him to wire, winning by 3 ¼ lengths over 44-1 Speightscity, who was 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Maryland invader Tiger Walk. The time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:44 1/5.
Alpha isn’t the flashy type and his times aren’t going to blow you away, but he has excellent stalking speed, relaxes beautifully about three lengths off the pace, and has a strong enough kick to quickly separate himself from the pack. But he still has to show he can do it against far better horses than he’s been facing. Stamina is not an issue, as he boasts a very strong pedigree, inundated with class influences on top and bottom. If he can duplicate his form in the Wood he is more than capable of taking home the roses.
“It was impressive the way he finished in the Withers,” McLaughlin said. “Ramon knows him well, he’s got great hands and he’s a great jockey, so we’re just happy with things. Anytime you’re 1-5 you get a little bit nervous.
“He was great in the gate. Obviously it’s nice to be outside, but at some point he’s going to have to be inside, so we’ll see how our schooling is working. I think he improved some from the Count Fleet, because of how wide he was both trips, and he was better in the gate. He gets a better grade for this race – if it was a ‘B’ last time, he gets an ‘A’ this time.
After discussing plans with Crisford, it was decided to skip the Gotham and ship back up from Florida for the Wood Memorial. McLaughlin feels three races are enough to prepare for the Derby and he wants to make sure he has a fresh horse through the Triple Crown.
Harty says Out of Bounds is the best 3-year-old he’s had since Colonel John, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and Travers. For a big, long-striding colt he has shown great athleticism and has demonstrated a relentless stretch run the way he keeps coming and grinds down his opponents. His maiden victory and Sham score were virtual carbon copies of each other. In the Sham he earned a lofty 99 Beyer speed figure, covering the mile in 1:34 2/5 and coming home his final eighth in :12 flat.
“I’ve been high on him since day one and he’s done nothing since then to make me stop believing in him,” Harty said. “He would work with good older horses and you could tell he was an above average horse. All good horses are naturally brilliant and don’t pay attention to other things. His size and stride come from the dam (Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Unbridled Elaine), who was a really big filly. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to take him to the Derby.”
Discreet Cat has gotten off to a tremendous start as a sire, which should come as no surprise, considering the brilliance he showed throughout his career, beginning with his six-furlong maiden victory at 2 in 1:09 3/5, and continuing with his amazing string of victories at 3, in which he romped by six-lengths in the UAE Derby, trouncing eventual Horse of the Year Invasor; cantered to an 11-length comeback score in 1:21 2/5 at Saratoga and a 10 ¼-length victory in the Jerome Handicap, and captured the Cigar Mile by 3 ¼ lengths, running his six furlongs in a blistering 1:07 3/5 and mile in 1:32 2/5.
Both Out of Bounds and Discreet Dancer have inherited their sire’s kind disposition and are easy-going, laid-back horses, which should help them get the 10 furlongs of the Derby. Harty called Out of Bounds a “gentle giant” who is strong mentally as well as physically. Pletcher said Discreet Dancer “has an excellent temperament, tremendous mechanics and great action, and there’s no wasted action. I haven’t seen the bottom of him, in his works or in his races.”
As for Bernardini, no one is surprised the grand-looking son of A.P. Indy is loaded with Derby prospects, that also include Holy Bull winner Algorithms and Gulfsteam Park Derby runner-up Casual Trick, both of whom will be running next weekend in the Fountain of Youth Stakes against Discreet Dancer in a battle of Darley stallions.
So Godolphin and Darley are riding high in America on both the racing and breeding fronts. If their horses stay healthy, by 7 o’clock on the evening of May 5 there could be a blue moon of Kentucky shinin’ down on Churchill Downs.