Nicholas Godfrey: Dubai World Cup Carnival gets its mojo back

Horse Racing Fore Left UAE 2,000 Guineas
Fore Left (William Buick) becomes the earliest-ever winner for the US at the Dubai Carnival in the UAE 2,000 Guineas. Photo: Dubai Racing Club/Erika Rasmussen
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

It’s taken a while but the 2020 Meydan carnival has burst into life with winners from all over the globe. Nicholas Godfrey on the pioneering project that shrinks the horse racing planet

Four races, four winners from four different continents. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

With week seven now upon us at Meydan, the Dubai World Cup Carnival last week burst into abundant international life as it moved past halfway with an array of winners from various corners of the globe. Europe, Asia, Africa and North America were all represented, with even a little hint of South America for good measure.

Here it must be admitted that I have always been an ardent supporter of Dubai’s drive to internationalise racing with the sort of cosmopolitan racecards that could only have been dreamt about a couple of decades ago.

But that does not mean it is necessary to be a wholly uncritical observer – and, speaking frankly, the first few weeks of the carnival these days are usually a slow-burning affair, totally dominated by the Godolphin operation with the ever-increasing potency of other UAE stables (step forward Doug Watson, Satish Seemar and Salem Bin Ghadayer) making it hard for outsiders to get a look-in.

On the other hand, it is a huge positive to see so many good horses running at a time of year that used to be utterly moribund for fans of top-class Flat racing, even if that means watching a phalanx of blue-shirted jockeys battling it out among themselves in what amount to a private battle between Messrs Appleby and Bin Suroor. On the turf at least.

Just two weeks ago, this column might have been left bemoaning that state of affairs. Even now, Godolphin have won 17 of the 38 available thoroughbred races – a strike rate of 44.7% – and 13 out of 24 on turf. More than half in other words.

Then we get to the Meydan dirt strip, where it has always been devilishly hard to win if you’re a visitor from outside the UAE, such is the evident home advantage. There were ten dirt races at the first four meetings at this year’s carnival; they all went to UAE-based horses. 

Overall, and despite all of us getting excited about the number of nations set to field runners at Meydan, only two nations (the home team and Britain) tasted success at the first four meetings. Not entirely global.

Guess what, though? Get to the end of January and suddenly we’ve got a cosmopolitan show. On week five, regular visitor Fawzi Nass put Bahrain on the scoresheet again with Salute The Soldier’s handicap victory; with more luck in running, he might have doubled his tally last week with Laieth.

Then there was Susanne Berneklint, who gets my vote as one of the stars of recent carnivals. Not content with last year being the only overseas trainer to saddle a carnival winner on the dirt (before World Cup night, of course) thanks to I Kirk, the Swedish-based handler repeated the dose with the longshot Plato O Plomo when the pace fell apart at the January 30 meeting.

While that remains the only return so far from a mob-handed Scandinavian squad, such moments are vital to the carnival’s wellbeing.

As good as week five was, though, last week’s card stepped things up to a significant new level – and Godolphin had plenty to do with that owing to the tremendous dirt debut of Benbatl in Round 2 of the Al Maktoum Challenge.

Mind you, even before that last week’s card had a vintage look. If the Dubai Carnival had forgotten Mike de Kock, then the South African legend showed that he certainly hadn’t forgotten the Dubai Carnival when Bella Fever stormed down the outer under Dane O’Neill to claim the Meydan Classic Trial from some well-touted Godolphin types.

This was old school De Kock, and all the better for it. The winner was sourced in South America, where she was unbeaten in four runs on dirt and turf at up to 5½f at Maronas, the wonderful racetrack in Montevideo, the capital of her native Uruguay.

As a southern-hemisphere filly, she was giving weight away to her three-year-old rivals in a victory out of the De Kock playbook from days of yore with horses like Asiatic Boy.

Then came another British success via Woven, representing Newmarket trainer David Simcock, who has made quite an art of snaring lucrative prizes around the globe over the years.

The piece de resistance, though, in international terms, came in the third race, the UAE 2,000 Guineas, in which Fore Left made all under William Buick to become the earliest US-trained winner there’s ever been in Dubai.

While there are problems in Southern California, trainer Doug O’Neill took a really bold step to send a string of his better horses to Dubai. It would have been pretty disastrous if they’d fallen flat on their faces, so to land the G3 Guineas was an important landmark success and a fitting reward for O’Neill’s enterprise.

The signs had been there in previous weeks as O’Neill’s horses had been running with plenty of promise, albeit without winning. The trainer had nearly won a Group race the week earlier with Truck Salesman, for instance, and all but one of his carnival representatives had made the first four.

After Rusumaat took the Dubai Sprint for Musabah Al Mheiri in the next, we had witnessed four winners from four different continents in the first four races.

This is surely illustrative of the carnival’s raison d’etre and, despite the proliferation of international races elsewhere, nowhere else on the planet, I’d venture, is such a spread of results likely to occur.

And even if it does – they’ve got eight different nations among the initial entries on the Saudi Cup card, for instance, and kudos to Hong Kong for their pioneering efforts – then rest assured it would never have happened without Dubai showing how it’s done.

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