All-Weather Cup - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the March 10, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric MitchellThe $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) commands attention not only due to its rich purse but from the status it has developed since 1996 as one of the world’s premier Thoroughbred events. Americans have a particular interest in this year’s running March 31 because their Derby winner is challenging the world’s best.

Animal Kingdom, winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), is the first to contest the World Cup since Silver Charm’s attempt at a second consecutive World Cup victory in 1999. His chances may be especially good because he’s already a graded stakes winner on a synthetic track. Meydan Racecourse, which became the new home to the World Cup in 2010, has a Tapeta all-weather surface.

Experience on a synthetic track is a common thread running through this year’s key American challengers in the marquee race, including grade I stakes winners Game On Dude and Royal Delta, 2011 champion 3-year-old filly and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I). Also expected to make the trip to Dubai for other races on the card, which features five group I events, are speedy grade I winner The Factor and stakes winner Lucky Chappy.

Team Valor International, the syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom, will be very selective with the son of Leroidesanimaux’ schedule this year.

“We are not planning a big domestic campaign,” said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor International and the breeder of Animal Kingdom. “If he is as good as we think he is, then I don’t want to just run in a bunch of races in this country. The purses aren’t good enough. The Dubai World Cup is a championship race. It is the kind of race we want for this horse.”

If Animal Kingdom shines in the World Cup, he will likely be aimed next for Hong Kong’s HK$14 million Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup (HK-I) April 29.

Irwin feels the World Cup is a natural fit for Animal Kingdom by distance (11⁄4 miles) and by surface. Animal Kingdom won the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) on Turfway Park’s Polytrack prior to winning the Derby.

“He has to run really well in Dubai,” Irwin said. “You can go to Hong Kong and be competitive with a grade I winner. In Dubai, you have to truly have a great horse.”

Having had a win on a synthetic surface was a crucial part of the decision to send Royal Delta.

“I would say it is more than 50% part of the decision,” said trainer Bill Mott. All of Royal Delta’s graded stakes victories have been won on the dirt surfaces of Churchill Downs, Saratoga, and Pimlico. But last April she won an allowance race at Keeneland by three lengths before going on to win the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II).

“If she didn’t have that win, it would have been a case where I wouldn’t have been in favor to go,” said Mott. “It puts that part of the equation out of your mind. She showed me more acceleration on the synthetic at Keeneland than she’s shown on the dirt.”

Mott also feels the race sets up well for Royal Delta, a daughter of Empire Maker who was bred and raced by the late Prince Saud bin Khaled and then sold in a dispersal after the Breeders’ Cup for $8.5 million to Benjamin Leon Jr.

“The decision for us to go was made shortly after she won the Breeders’ Cup and, to me, it made sense. I don’t know if it made sense to anyone else,” he said dryly. “Although she is a filly against colts, she has won on synthetics and she’s won at 10 furlongs. She doesn’t need any medication, and she has won under the lights.”

Game On Dude and The Factor also have raced well on synthetics. They are both trained by Bob Baffert, who won the 1998 World Cup with Silver Charm and with Captain Steve in 2001.

Game On Dude has not won a race on a synthetic surface, but he finished a slim nose behind First Dude in last year’s Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) on Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track. As for ability, the son of Awesome Again has won the Santa Anita Handicap and the Goodwood Stakes (both grade I) and finished a close second to Drosselmeyer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).

The Factor, who will likely be aimed for the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) at six furlongs, got his synthetic experience on Del Mar’s Polytrack where he won the seven-furlong Pat O’Brien Stakes (gr. I).

U.S.-based horses have already done well historically in the World Cup, having captured seven of the 16 runnings. Most of those runnings, however, were on dirt. Now—like synthetics or hate them—the tracks with all-weather surfaces may hold the key to unlocking the world’s richest race for America’s contenders going forward.

For more stories and information on the Duabi Carnival, visit our Dubai racing channel.

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