The Dirt on Dubai - by Evan Hammonds

Usually a handicap race on a Thursday afternoon wouldn’t attract that much interest around the editorial department of Blood-Horse. However, the race Feb. 25 at Meydan Racecourse featured the star attraction California Chrome, 2014 Horse of the Year.

The 5-year-old Cal-bred, now owned by Perry and Denise Martin, Taylor Made, and several other breeders, pulled away to win the $143,000 10-furlong event by two lengths. He’s being pointed toward a second run at the $10 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I) March 26 in the desert, in which he finished second a year ago. California Chrome figures to face a stiffer challenge this time when the race will include the cream of the North American handicap division in Frosted and Keen Ice, grade I 3-year-olds from last year that have emerged from the shadow of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah; Mshawish, a grade I winner on turf and winner of last month’s Donn Handicap (gr. I) on dirt at Gulfstream; and perhaps Hoppertunity.

A 3-year-old, Frank Conversation, is heading to Dubai from California in two weeks to be prepared for a run at the UAE Derby (UAE-II) and X Y Jet, winner of the Feb. 27 Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes (gr. III), is being pointed toward the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I).

Sheikh Mohammed devised and built the World Cup program from the ground up in the mid 1990s, masterfully bringing together the globe’s top runners in late March of each year. Once a rich playground for North America’s top handicap horses, Dubai failed to whet the appetite of American horsemen when Meydan installed a synthetic main track in 2010.

On the dirt, North American-based runners had won 10 of the first 13 World Cups (including Street Cry and Invasor who had proved themselves in the U.S. but were representing the United Arab Emirates and Argentina, respectively, in Dubai). In the five editions on the synthetic Tapeta surface, only the American-based Animal Kingdom (2013) emerged victorious in the desert, and he had impeccable form on dirt, turf, and synthetics.

Animal Kingdom was one of only seven North America runners to venture to the Middle East for the World Cup when the race was on synthetic. No American-based runners were in the gate for the 2014 World Cup. Apparently $10 million wasn’t enough of a draw.

“Americans have the best dirt horses in the world,” said Bradley Weisbord, racing manager for Al Shaqab Racing, owner of Mshawish. “Sheikh Mohammed is looking for a larger profile in America, and I don’t think he was getting the participation he wanted from the Americans.”

Synthetic surfaces had momentum in North America in 2010 in Kentucky at Turfway Park and Keeneland, in California where it was mandated at all tracks, and at Woodbine in Canada. When horsemen and horseplayers found it too hard to gauge form, and as soft-tissue injuries mounted, the bloom was off the rose. Keeneland, Santa Anita, and Del Mar have all returned to dirt surfaces, and Meydan also went to a dirt surface last year.

“The World Cup is certainly more relevant to American runners than when it was on synthetic,” said Bill Farish of Lane’s End Farm, who is also chairman of Breeders’ Cup. “It was obviously a very conscious decision to do that. It has had the desired effect of getting some of those top North American dirt horses over there.”

“I’m glad they went back to a dirt surface; it’s much more conducive for us to go over there and run,” said Taylor Made’s Frank Taylor upon his return from watching California Chrome run. “I’d be surprised if an American horse doesn’t win it this year.”

Ten million bucks? Throw some dirt on it and watch the Americans come running. This year’s World Cup will have America’s full attention. As legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham used to say: “We’ve got ’em surrounded.”

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