Churchill Downs‘ concerted effort to “internationalize” the Kentucky Derby Sponsored by Woodford Reserve (G1) shows every sign of paying off big time on March 27 in the UAE Derby Sponsored by Emirates NBD (G2)—perhaps with a reverse twist.
The UAE Derby is an integral part of the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” awarding points on the 100-40-20-10 scale, designed to lure the world’s best to the Louisville starting gate.
As befits a 100-points race, the field for the 1,900-meters (about 1 3/16 miles) race on the Meydan Racecourse dirt is about as international as they come, with runners hailing from as far afield as England, Uruguay, and Japan. Some top contenders arrive via Saudi Arabia.
But those points are there for the taking not only by foreign-trained 3-year-olds but for anyone qualified to run in the Meydan race. And this year, the field includes two American-trained colts shipped to Dubai in search of what amounts to a back door into the Run for the Roses.
The American contenders are Ambivalent, a Doug O’Neill-trained Constitution colt who broke his maiden in his seventh start Feb. 21 at Santa Anita Park, and Lugamo, a Florida-bred colt by Chitu who raced as a 2-year-old in Maryland, winning two of four starts.
“The owner sent him down to Florida to see if he could qualify for the Kentucky Derby,” trainer Antonio Sano’s son and assistant, Alessandro Sano, said after watching Lugamo during training March 22. “We found out one of the best routes to the Kentucky Derby would be this track here in Dubai.”
Sano said Lugamo blossomed when he got to Florida, opening up the Dubai route to Louisville. “The horse was jaw-dropping after every single breeze (in Florida). We said, ‘You know what? We’ve got a chance to go to Dubai, let’s take it.’ “
Ambivalent arrives in Dubai on the back of his first win in a Santa Anita maiden event Feb. 21. He was third in the Bob Hope Stakes (G3) at Del Mar in his final start of 2020—one placing in front of Spielberg.
Speight’spercomete, a Speightstown colt, also could be added to the list although all four of his previous starts came at Meydan. Trained by Doug Watson, Speight’spercomete is owned by his breeder, Charles Fipke, who overcame some pandemic-related issues to fly to Dubai for the race.
“This horse has done nothing but improve. Doug Watson and his team always liked him and told me he was a nice horse. He was very disappointing first time but ran better second time. His two starts this year have been much more promising,” Fipke said after training March 24.
The Meydan path to Churchill Downs is not exactly new but it hasn’t been particularly successful, either. Plus Que Parfait showed promise as a 2-year-old but, after finishing 13th in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, trainer Brendan Walsh shipped him to Dubai, where he won the UAE Derby. The Point of Entry ridgling moved along to the Kentucky Derby, where at odds of better than 57-1 he finished ninth, promoted to eighth after the disqualification of Maximum Security .
Any of the U.S. contenders would have to produce a career-best effort to earn this year’s points. The rest of the field is formidable.
Pink Kamehameha, a Leontes colt, was last seen winning the Saudi Derby Sponsored by Rahji Bank Feb. 20 in Riyadh with Cowan finishing second. That race was his first on the dirt after an undistinguished 2-year-old campaign on the grass in Japan. Whether the surface change will continue to benefit the Hideyuki Mori charge is an open question as the Saudi and Dubai dirt courses are far from identical.
“He is feeling really good and is sharpening up towards the race,” Masaki Takano, assistant to Mori said. “He has not received a luck of the draw in (gate) 14. My only concern is the first corner comes shortly after the start. But it’s good for him not to be crowded on the outside.”
New Treasure, a New Approach gelding trained by John Gosden, was third in the Saudi race, also making his first start on the dirt, and tries again here.
Panadol, a New York-bred colt by Flatter , is 2-for-2 with both starts coming at Meydan. He exits a three-quarters of a length score in the Al Bastakiya Sponsored by Arabian Adventures on Super Saturday, March 6. Speight’spercomete and El Patriota finished second and third in that race.
As a Southern Hemisphere-bred, El Patriota shoulders a penalty in the Derby, carrying 59.5 Kg (about 131 pounds) versus 55 Kg (about 121 pounds) for the other 13. Trainer Antonio Cintra Pereira said he hopes a different setup in the Derby will help him improve on the last effort.
“If there is a fast pace, then that will be perfect for him,” Pereira said at a March 22 news conference at Meydan. “He likes to run just for the last 400 or 500 meters.”
Mouheeb, another Flatter colt, has two wins and a second, all at Meydan, and was last seen eking out a narrow win over Meshakel in the UAE Two Thousand Guineas Sponsored by Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal Feb. 4.
Mnasek, a Kentucky-bred Empire Maker filly, has been rested since winning the UAE Oaks Sponsored by New Jaguar F-Type by 6 1/2 lengths Feb. 18. She also is trained by Watson, who said he feels the filly has resolved some gate issues.
“She got a nice draw in (gate) 4. Hopefully she breaks well and we kind of want to go forward if she breaks well and get a good position.”
Mnasek is one of two fillies in the race. The other, Soft Whisper, is part of a possibly overlooked Godolphin duo, both by Dubawi, that also includes Rebel’s Romance. Soft Whisper, trained by Saeed bin Suroor, won the UAE One Thousand Guineas Presented by Longines by seven lengths under Frankie Dettori before finishing fifth in the Saudi Derby. Rebel’s Romance won the UAE Two Thousand Guineas Trial, running his record to 3-for-3, before finishing fourth in Riyadh.
Ironically, as 3-year-olds from around the globe compete in Dubai with a Kentucky Derby spot on the line, both the “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby” and the “European Road to the Kentucky Derby” hit the finish line, too. The Japan series wraps up just hours before the UAE Derby with the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse and the European previews conclude with the Cardinal Conditions Stakes April 1 at Chelmsford City.
“All Other 3-Year-Olds,” which would include the UAE Derby field, will start Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager at 20-1 when betting opens March 26.