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. 


Leave a Comment:


Mr. Haskin, very nice article!!!

19 Mar 2013 12:06 PM
Mary Zinke

I agree with JorgeG, very nice!  Mr. Cummings' and Mr. Mott's words about Royal Delta brought a smile.  Bon Voyage, beauty, "my" Royal Delta.

19 Mar 2013 1:26 PM
Fran Loszynski

Polytrack, tapeta,synthetic...whatever happened to 'horseracing?  Racehorses and jockeys compete against one another not what,s under their feet. We wanted safety but how can we deny these courageous and swift animals who they really feel they are. The hoof scratching the earth, the jockey feeling the grounded animal under him digging in for the turn.  I'm mad as hell that I have to read and look for what kind of track my favorite horse is running on instead of figuring on his skill and his jockey.

19 Mar 2013 3:57 PM
Fran Loszynski

I haven't had a chance to convey my happiness that beautiful Rachel Alexandra is recovering. I know you love her alot Steve.  She is the movie star of racehorses..and it didn't matter what kind of track she was on

19 Mar 2013 4:18 PM
Matt Scott

Very nice article. I found the comments by Mike de Kock about his thoughts on skeletal structure acclimation extremely interesting. Steve, do you think more trainers would consider Dubai training/racing at Golden Gate Fields if they offered a graded stakes in the January/February time frame? This year, the only stakes offered during these months were 6f listed stakes, and restricted 3-year-old prep races.

19 Mar 2013 6:05 PM
Lammtarra's Arc

Fran- Deal with it.  If it means less break downs and no sloppy tracks when it rains..I am all for it.  As for the article..well done Mr.Haskins.  Listen to what Mr.De Kock says...he is the master.  What he said about arriving early and allowing the horse the time to get used to the surface and surroundings is key.  I also like his thoughts on how the Tapeta can fool trainers, very insightful from a genious.

19 Mar 2013 8:18 PM

Fran Loszynski,

Horses were chiefly used as beasts of burden before they were used for pleasure and sports.

I am of the opinion they were not designed to carry weight on their backs with tiny humans armed with whips urging them along at the height of a Lactic Acid attack.

For all the criticism of Synthetic tracks, they are easier on the legs of these majestic animals.

Certain horses preferred surface is Turf/Synthetics and other prefer dirt.

Most  major US tracks offer turf and dirt racing. I cannot see the harm of a few synthetic races.

Variety is the spice of life.

19 Mar 2013 8:26 PM
El Kabong


If someone wasn't excited about Dubai before this, they are now. Outstanding read.

I'm already jazzed about it with Dullahan running with Stevens, but I couldn't have wet my appetite any better than this. Really looking forward to this and appreciate all the incredible insight here.

19 Mar 2013 10:00 PM

Steve this was quite informative and an interesting read on the tapeta surface and Dubai.  I agree with the belief of training long on that surfact prior to racing on it, especially now since reading it has effects on their skeletal system.  Early arrival is key I guess.  I understand the concept of levelling the playing field by changing the dirt and coming up with Meydan and the tapeta surface and making the races more fair to the Euro participants.  Now, however the tables have turned and it seems to lure the Americans back in they increased the purse size.  In the case of Java's War I am glad the owners have come to their senses and will skip Dubai for now.  I think that is a much better and safer choice for the well-being of their colt.

How many tapeta training surfaces are there here in America?  I think Golden Gate was mentioned in this article and I am assuming it is in California but all cannot ship there so if we are intent on running in Dubai shouldn't there be tapeta here to train on in various parts of the country?  It's either that or a lengthy stay in Dubai.

19 Mar 2013 10:16 PM
The Deacon

Great article Steve, brilliantly written. I am one of those hard core old timers who doesn't are for synthetic tracks. I always ask myself 'what if'...........what if Secretariat, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Seattle Slew, or Spectacular Bid had to run on synthetic surfaces.

Certainly history would look differently. Nice show they put on but not an indication of the best horse...........nevertheless loved the article Steve.

20 Mar 2013 12:48 AM

I've been all over this as a non-betting horse-loving fan since 2007 when I moved to Dubai. It is not the Tapeta. It is acclimatization + experience. Curlin set the gold standard. Come very early (January). Get into a normal routine and feel at home. Run a prep with your usual rider (Robby, the Jaguar, February). Yes, that was on dirt, but that is my point. Too much is being attributed to the Tapeta and not enough to the "experience." I like Royal Delta more this year  because she was here last year - no other reason. But I subtract points for her late shipping (again!). Well-Armed finished third to Curlin, Gloria de Campeao second to Well-Armed before winning, Monterosso finished third to Victoire Pisa and Transcend, then won the next year, the latter two winning results on the Tapeta. This is not nuclear science. This is reading.

20 Mar 2013 1:51 AM

I don't care how many millons of dollars some oil sheik throws at his race toy in the desert....it will never achieve the status that rightfully belongs to the Kentucky Derby and triple crown.

20 Mar 2013 3:51 AM

In the right hands Gio Ponti could have won 15 MILLION DOLLARS...EASY!!!...He was one hell of a Race Horse with a TON of HEART...ty...

20 Mar 2013 4:56 AM
Pedigree Ann

Sorry, Giddyup, boat's already sailed. The US Triple Crown races may be top of the heap in the US, but in the rest of the world, the Dubai World Cup meeting is the place where the world meets to decide who's best. US is becoming more and more marginalized in the world, due its dependence on race-day meds.

20 Mar 2013 10:44 AM


Are you aware of the millions the Boys in Blue have invested all over the world in thoroughbreds and thoroughbred racing?

Have you ever visited any of their Farms or Training facilities? To these guys the horse id God like.

The World Cup was never conceived to rival the Triple Crown.

US based connections do not have to send horses to Dubai.

Your post is clearly based on ignorance and does no justice to the effort to share significant information about the Dubai World Cup.  

20 Mar 2013 10:58 AM

We run the BC Classic on dirt, a lesser surface in the rest of the racing world.  It was run at least 2x on synthetic, but we whine when the rest of the world prefers a different surface?

Tapeta is a great compromise, and the dearth of USA success may have less to do with the surface than the inability of American horses to run without their PED Lasix.

All sorts of other excuses, but let us look the elephant square in the eye.  American racing is just not up to running against the internationals drug-free.

20 Mar 2013 2:01 PM

Coldfacts - no one in the rest of the world gives a rat's derrière about the Preakness or Belmont Stakes.   Few care much about the Kentucky Derby any more, as it is seen as over-medicated young horses running on a foreign surface.

The distance isn't a test, as their classic distance is 2 furlongs longer.  There is a growing divide between American racing and the rest of the world, and we're not leading it, except possibly in the shed, but that is shifting too.

Your patriotism is to be admired, but the cold had facts just aren't in your favor.

20 Mar 2013 2:07 PM

Great article Steve. This could be a bonanza year for the American horses. I like Triniberg from his South Florida base at Calder to defy all the logics from the experts in your article and cop that sprint. The 3YO colt Dice Flavor has an outstanding chance on the Tapeta in the UAE Derby, Little Mike is going to be a bear on the turf and we could have the trifecta in the marqee World Cup with Dullahan (shouldn't fail twice on the same synthetic surface, having run a sub-two minute 10 furlong in the Pacific Classic at Hollywood Park last year), Animal Kingdom and Royal Delta all in fine fettle. Can't wait.    

20 Mar 2013 3:54 PM

I need to ad this (to show respect to his connections) because of the wonderful people that own & work for Castleton Lyons including C.Clementh Gio Ponti's trainer...I just feel that Gio Ponti was hands down the BEST T-Bred Race Horse on the planet in the last twenty years bar none...after I saw him win the Va. Derby in the flesh I knew he was something special!!!...With a little tweek here and a little tweek there he wins two BC CLASSICS & two DUBAI WORLD CUPS going away!!!...If anyone out there has a mare to breed I'd be sending her to this GUY while hes still one HELL of a BARGIN!!!...Get Busy...ty...

20 Mar 2013 4:11 PM
Lammtarra's Arc

Lmaris-  Actually Coldhardfacts is 100% correct.  People critisize the Sheikh for his extravagant Dubai Carnival and say "oh he is just an oil sheikh throwing his money around to draw runners"...isn't thatwhat the BC did???.  The American promoters for the Breeders Cup love promoting the richest day in American racing highlighted by the 5 million dollar Classic.  That's ok though right?. Not to mention the fact that The sheikh sponsors dozens of races world wide, and has operations in Europe,Dubai, Australia and the USA.  He is an icon for the sport, and before ANYONE else critisizes him again remember who spends the most money at American yearling/2 year old sales....ya that's right...THE SHEIKH. If the Sheikh stopped attending your sales every year what would your sales revenues be?.

20 Mar 2013 4:18 PM

I am with Pedigree Ann. Bettors don't get it. They race for the love of the horse in Dubai as in Arabia generally (the Arabian Horse World Championships are held there the week before - magnificent animals, show only, my favorite event). The absence of meds and a relatively protective surface are joys for horse lovers. The decision to continue to allow Lasix in the BC marginalizes the U.S. horse industry for the sake of the betting industry. It's an ongoing mistake.

21 Mar 2013 12:31 AM

I agree with Coldfacts and Flamingo on this one.  Sheikh Mo is just great for the sport.  He is a worldwide force and more power to him.  I think he has the love of the horse at heart and has created state-of-the-art facilities.  He has done wonders for American sales and his Darley USA operation is one of my favorites.  I have always been a fan of Sheikh Mo.  I would say it was brilliant of him to increase the purse size since the American horses are not faring too well over tapeta.  My point is the entire experience for the horses going over there is taxing on them to say the least with climate changes, flying, shipping, etc.  We need to install some tapeta training tracks here to make that experience a little easier on the horses since I am sure many weeks in Dubai is not condusive to many trainer's and assistant trainer's schedules.  But then again would the tapeta here be equal to the consistency of the tapeta in Dubai or made of the same components?  It's a tricky thing but I am all for early arrivals, I even like early arrivals at Churchill here for our Derby.

21 Mar 2013 7:17 PM

The only natural surface is turf.

Does a horse ever, in its lifetime, tread upon any other surface resembling a dirt track? Has the horse evolved running on fluffed up dirt? Has the TB been selectively bred to run on fluffed up dirt? Is it raised from birth on dirt?

A dirt track is an artifact. Turf is natural; synthetics are imitations of natural; dirt is a manufactured surface with selected dirt as a major ingredient.

Horses who never ran on dirt: Eclipse, Highflyer, Galopin, Herod, Hermit, Canterbury Pilgrim, Penelope, Pocahontas, Stockwell, St. Simon, Plucky Liege, Blenheim, Nearco, Ribot, La Troienne, Hyperion, Sadler's Wells, Storm Bird . . . to name a few. (Giant's Causeway was on the list, then my last two brain cells collided and I remembered the Classic.)  

22 Mar 2013 12:44 AM

Cassandra Your kinding right.  Throughbred are said to orginate from arabian from the middle east which is mostly desert i.e. sand which is the main component of most american dirt tracks.  Most horses are raised on grass which grows in dirt. The only natural surfaces are turf and dirt, nothing is natural about synthetic surfaces.  If you want to be technical the only surface one should run on is grass but where would we be without our dirt racing.

26 Mar 2013 12:23 AM

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