Dry In the Desert

(Originally published in the March 16, 2013 issue, page 34, of The Blood-Horse magazine.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Those were the classic words spewed forth by newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie “Network.” But they could very well have been uttered by international trainers who for years were forced to watch U.S.-trained horses ship halfway around the world to Dubai and walk off with the multi-million-dollar purse of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) almost annually.

Despite the influx of top horses from all over the globe, American invaders captured eight of the first 14 runnings of the World Cup, then run on a conventional dirt track. Five were won by horses stabled in Dubai and owned by the Maktoum family, either under the banner of Godolphin or Shadwell, and the other represented Great Britain but was owned by Sheikh Mohammed. So, it was all USA and the Maktoums, with the rest of the world merely supporting players to fill the remainder of the field.

Following the inaugural running of the World Cup, with a mere $4 million purse back in 1996, Michael Hills, the rider of the English-trained fourth-place finisher Pentire, expressed his frustration after finishing behind American horses Cigar, Soul of the Matter, and L’Carriere. Hills stood at the podium at the post-race interviews and vented about the advantage the Americans had on a dirt track.

That frustration would escalate over the years, reaching a breaking point when American-trained horses Invasor, Curlin, and Well Armed rattled off three consecutive victories from 2007 to 2009, giving the U.S. five wins in six years. As if to pile on the indignities, Curlin won by 73⁄4 lengths and Well Armed romped by 14 lengths. The Dubai World Cup, which by then had had its purse raised to a record $6 million, was becoming nothing more than a playground for American horses looking to bring home untold riches from the Middle East.

Plans, however, were already in the works in 2009 to build a brand new state-of-the-art glitter palace—Meydan—and boost the purse of the World Cup to an ostentatious $10 million. Sheikh Mohammed decided to strip the World Cup to the bone and restructure his premier race and all other dirt races by installing a Tapeta synthetic surface, which was owned and designed by former trainer Michael Dickinson and was being used by two racetracks in the United States.

From Europe to the Far East, horsemen rejoiced. Finally, those big dollar signs were right in front of them for the taking. They no longer were mad as hell at the farce the Dubai World Cup had become. They now had the same chance as the Americans to land the race’s mammoth prize, probably even more, considering how well grass horses had been performing over the various synthetic surfaces throughout the U.S.

On March 27, 2010, the new era of the Dubai World Cup began. American horses found themselves reduced to also-rans as Gio Ponti, a champion on grass and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) over Santa Anita’s then Pro-Ride synthetic track (the track changed back to dirt in 2010), finished fourth; synthetic lover Richard’s Kid, a terror over Del Mar’s Polytrack, finished seventh; and Furthest Land, winner of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) at Santa Anita, brought up the rear in 14th.

The only bright spot for America was the victory of Kinsale King in the about six-furlong Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News (UAE-I). Kinsale King would become the only American-trained horse to win over the Tapeta surface for the next three years.

So, why was Kinsale King able to win on the Tapeta, while Game On Dude, Royal Delta, The Factor, Fly Down, Richard’s Kid, and Gio Ponti all failed to finish in the money?

What set the son of Yankee Victor apart from the other American participants was that he had trained over the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields with the specific intention of preparing for the Golden Shaheen.

“I had never run a horse on that surface, so when I saw that they had installed Tapeta, I asked the owner if he would mind if I took the horse up to Golden Gate for three weeks to train over that track,” said trainer Carl O’Callaghan, who was a former assistant and exercise rider for Todd Pletcher. “If he liked it, we’d try (the Golden Shaheen) and if I felt he didn’t get over the track, we wouldn’t go.

“I worked him twice over it, including once between races and he worked amazing over it. If I were to ever go back again, I definitely would train at Golden Gate. Tapeta is a demanding surface, and I really believe training over it helped him.”

If training for a sprint race helped Kinsale King, what about the American horses who have to run 11⁄4 miles over it? To show how dramatically the nature of the World Cup changed following the installment of Tapeta, the first two finishers in 2010 were the French-trained international traveler Gloria De Campeao and the South African horse Lizard’s Desire, who were separated by a nose at the wire. 

One trainer who believes it is imperative to train over the Tapeta and actually have a prep race over it is Mike de Kock, the great South African trainer who, with the exception of the home team Godolphin stable, has had more success in Dubai than any other trainer. He has won the UAE Derby (UAE-II) five times and the UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III) five times, and swept the UAE Triple Crown with Asiatic Boy. He also trained Lizard’s Desire, who would turn the tables on Gloria De Campeao two months after the World Cup in the Singapore Airlines International Cup (Sin-I).

“I think it would be a very good idea to come here early, just from a physiological point of view,” de Kock said. “If you think of the changes a horse’s skeletal system will go through, you’d realize that if you get here and run right away, you’re looking for problems. I believe you have to come here, get them going, and get them used to the surface, and then start to introduce the speed works slowly but surely. I really do feel like the horses go through boney, skeletal changes when they run over this track. We work at home (in South Africa) on heavy dirt, and when we bring them here, they fly across the track, so it does take time.

“Because they do go through physical changes, it’s a gradual process getting them ready. What I’ve observed with the Tapeta as opposed to the dirt is that they do work a little quicker on the Tapeta, almost too fast. You really need to try and hold them back a little. Because they tend to work fast, they’re never really as fit as you think they are when they first come out because they get across it so well. It’s almost too easy on them, so they tend to take a lot more work. I work horses fast quite often and do a lot of speed work, but it’s controlled speed. I’d rather put in an extra day and go short than go longer and faster. I’ve watched a few blokes go longer and they work quite quickly and in the last 400 yards they’re being pushed with the sticks out, and that’s the one thing you need to avoid.

“You have to be very careful not to go too fast. With fatigue they start to get too loose and that’s when you’re going to get your soft tissue injuries—the tendons and ligaments. When they’re getting fatigued, their legs start getting heavy and that’s when you have problems. If anyone is serious about the World Cup, I would think about coming here six weeks or more in advance and participating in the Carnival, so the horse’s skeletal structure can get used to the difference in the surface. That in turn will help get them fitter.”

De Kock wouldn’t say for sure why the American horses have performed so poorly in the World Cup recently, but he had a couple of theories. In addition to the acclimatization factor, he believes the nature of the race has changed with the Tapeta surface.

“American horses are used to going fast early and slower late, while on the Tapeta it’s just the opposite,” de Kock said. “Another reason the Americans haven’t fared as well on the Tapeta is that they’re now running against champions from the different countries, and most of the horses they’ve sent haven’t been champions.”

One person who agrees with that last premise is Barry Irwin, president of  Team Valor International, which has competed twice in the World Cup in the past three years with Gitano Hernando, the 2009 Goodwood Stakes (gr. I) winner who finished sixth both times. This year it will be represented by Animal Kingdom, who has proved to be a top-class horse on dirt, synthetic, and grass.

“I think that representatives from the United States in recent years have not been our very best stock,” Irwin said. “Racing on Tapeta is different than racing on most tracks that our horses are used to. Recently, Japan has sent better-quality horses to Dubai than the United States has. Godolphin has dedicated considerable resources to winning its premier race, and they had huge success last season.

“South Africa has done well. England has not really sent its best horses, but they have the best horses in the world, so their second tier horses can compete with the best in Dubai.

“Aside from that, there are other issues to deal with. There has been considerable debate about when is the best time to send a horse to Dubai. Some feel that showing up as close to the race is ideal. Others feel that horses need to be in the desert as early as late November or early December. Nobody really knows the answer to these questions, which makes it all the more perplexing.”

We should have a better idea after we see how American invaders Dullahan and Little Mike fare on World Cup night following their disappointing performances in their respective prep races on Super Saturday March 9. Little Mike could return to the turf after tiring in the stretch over the Tapeta, while Dullahan should improve after breaking slowly and being rushed into contention along the inside before fading. That is, assuming it was not the surface that did him in.

There is no keener student of racing in Dubai than Pat Cummings, founder and editor of Dubairacenight.com. Cummings doesn’t believe that the surface at Meydan requires any different fitness level than normal and thinks the Tapeta at Meydan plays true to pace. In other words, if they go fast early, horses will back up, and if they go slow, they’ll stay.

“Gio Ponti was a total of three lengths away from being a two-time winner of the World Cup, and I really think he could have won it in 2011,” Cummings said. “The track does often produce slower times as the temperature rises, which is typically the case in late March, but that hasn’t seemed to impact performance. Two of the three World Cups at Meydan have been run with much slower tempos than U.S.-based jockeys are used to, and the pace likely feels similar to long turf races.

“Gloria De Campeao backed it down in 2010. In 2011, jockey Mirco Demuro (on Japan’s Victoire Pisa) sensed it was so slow and went from last to first down the backstretch, seized the initiative, and he and the early pacesetter, Transcend, completed a Japanese exacta. Look at how close Gio Ponti was to the lead in 2011—he was being strangled back, which was never really an issue with him in the past, but it was expected, given the slow pace. Meanwhile, the winner moved around him while Gio Ponti got yanked off the pace and the race was over. Last year’s race was a much more moderate tempo and the result reflected it.”

Last year’s World Cup was a crushing blow to the United States, as Game On Dude and Royal Delta, both Horse of the Year candidates, were well-beaten, but Cummings feels there was a reason that both horses underperformed.

“Overall, 2012 wasn’t a true representation of U.S. performance,” he said. “The wide draw and stutter step at the start doomed Game On Dude, and Royal Delta was tossed about in a troubled trip and was lucky to emerge with nothing more than a bruise to her ego. Right now, I feel she’s a deserving future book favorite for this year’s running.”

Royal Delta’s trainer, Bill Mott, who captured the inaugural World Cup with Cigar, said he is not planning on making any adjustments this year, especially considering the fact Royal Delta has already won over a synthetic surface, scoring in an allowance race over Keeneland’s Polytrack in 2011.

“She’s also trained on it when she was in Dubai last year,” Mott said. “I feel she gets over it very well and can compete as well on it as she does the dirt. I don’t do anything different in her training. They have some very nice horses over there with some of the best pedigrees in the world, and they shouldn’t be underestimated. Having the races on the Tapeta now, it probably puts them more on a level playing field than when it was on dirt and our horses had more of an edge.

“Last year I attributed her performance to the troubled trip. I rarely like making excuses, but she did have a bad trip, and that’s why we’re going back. If I thought she had a good trip and just didn’t like it and was completely outrun, then we wouldn’t be going back. But I don’t think that’s the case. We still feel we have a good horse who will handle the going, and like any race, you need some racing luck, which she didn’t have last year.”

If on World Cup day, Royal Delta and Animal Kingdom mirror the poor performances  by Dullahan, a three-time grade I winner on Polytrack, and Little Mike in their prep races at Meydan, then it is the Americans who will be mad as hell. But one thing we can be sure of, for $10 million, they’ll keep taking it. 

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