After a commanding victory last month at Meydan in his first start outside of South Africa, undefeated champion Soft Falling Rain enters the $250,000 United Arab Emirates Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III) Feb. 14 as the horse to beat.
The field for the 1,600-meter (about one-mile), the first jewel in the U.A.E. Triple Crown, also includes classics hopeful Fortify, a former Kiaran McLaughlin trainee who is twice stakes-placed in the U.S., including at the grade I level. He is among a trio of Godolphin contenders trained by Mahmood Al Zarooni.
The Guineas is the featured event on the card, which also includes a pair of group III events: Firebreak Stakes Sponsored by Range Rover and the Al Shinadagha Sponsored by Jaguar XJ.
The Guineas is a launching pad to the United Arab Emirates Derby (UAE-II), a race in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, on March 30. The U.A.E. Triple Crown also includes the listed Al Bastakiya Mar. 9.
Soft Falling Rain overcame a long layoff, quarantine, a tough weight assignment, an increased distance for the first time, and new track surface in the Guineas trial at Meydan Jan. 17, handling all with aplomb for trainer Mike de Kock. He led all the way and scored a dominant 2 1/2-length victory while taking his career record to five wins in as many starts, including the South African Nursery Stakes (SAf-I) last April at Turffontein to secure champion 2-year-old honors in his native country.
The son National Assembly carried 137 pounds en route to a dominant win in the 1,400-meter (about seven-furlong) Guineas trial and has a 131-pound impost for main event as he stretches out to a metric mile for the first time.
De Kock, who is seeking a fifth win in the Guineas, said he believes Soft Falling Rain will handle the distance challenge.
"He has a lot of natural speed and there was a slight concern 1,400 meters might be a bit far, but he stayed well enough," he said. "He had worked well on the surface, but until they race on it you can never be certain. Again the extra 200 meters has to be a concern, but my gut feeling is he will stay and he is certainly a lot fitter than he was three weeks ago."
Fortify, a Distorted Humor colt who has yet to win a stakes, starts on the arduous road to the classics in the Guineas, in which he will carry 121 pounds.
Fortify posted a visually impressive victory in his career debut last summer at Saratoga and drawing off to a 5 1/2-length win after being fractious in the gate. In three subsequent starts, he finished behind the season's eventual champion Shanghai Bobby: beginning with his second in the Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes (gr. II) Sept. 3 at Saratoga, and followed by a third in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes (gr. I) Oct. 6 at Belmont, and fourth in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.
"He is a nice horse who is pleasing us at home," Al Zarooni said. "His form is on dirt but hopefully he will handle the all-weather. He will improve for the run but should be competitive."
Al Zarooni also will send out Snowboarder, a Raven's Pass colt who was third in the Guineas trial, and Filfil, a Hard Spun colt who finished sixth. De Kock also saddle Zahee, a multiple winner in Australia who finished fourth in the Guineas trail. The Dylan Thomas colt will be making his stakes debut.
The eight-horse field also includes English group III winner Glass Office, who was fifth in the Guineas trial; and English stakes winners Deauville Prince, who finished fourth in the Gran Criterium (Ity-I) last October in his most recent start; and filly Pure Excellence, an English stakes winner who will try to bounce back from her ninth-place finish in the United Arab Emirates One Thousand Guineas Sponsored by Gulf News earlier this month.
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