West Point Thoroughbreds' Twilight Eclipse will try to become the first United States-based runner to win the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic (UAE-I) March 29 at Meydan Racecourse.
Among his rivals will be Japanese star mare Gentildonna, runner-up last year, and 2012 victor Cirrus des Aigles.
The prestigious turf contest made headlines March 26 with Meydan Group chairman Saeed Al Tayer's announcement that purse money for the Sheema Classic, as well as for the $5 million Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I), will each be increased to $6 million next year.
Twilight Eclipse is one of three U.S. horses to ship to Dubai for races on World Cup (UAE-I) night. While none of the three tries the $10 million main event, a pair of American speedsters will bid for the evening's two sprint events: Zayat Stable's Zee Bros is entered for the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) and Stud Sampaio's Berlino Di Tiger tries for the $1 million Al Quoz Sprint (UAE-I).
Twilight Eclipse drew post 11 in the 15-horse Sheema classic field and will be ridden by Jose Lezcano, who was aboard for consecutive victories in the W. L. McKnight Handicap (gr. III) in December and in the Mac Diarmida Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 15.
West Point Thoroughbreds president Terry Finely said the 5-year-old Purim gelding is doing well. He made a couple of circuits around Meydan's all-weather track March 27.
"He's a calm horse, but he does get a little excited coming to the paddock," Finley said. "That's one thing the commentators (in the United States) talk about when he comes into the paddock is that he'll get hot on you, but it hasn't affected him (in his races).
"The Euros don't mind the long walks before and after training, but the American horses get a little on the muscle after getting off the racetrack but having so long to go (to get back to the stables)," Finely added. "It is what it is but it's no big deal. He looks happy and he's carrying good weight. We'll have no excuses from a physical standpoint. The big thing is if he's good enough.
Finley talked a little bit about how he thinks the race might unfold.
"I think going a mile and a half (2,400 meters) nobody should send," he said of the race pace. "I don't see anyone coming out of there race-riding. We're going to be very close to the pace, if not right on the lead. I don't think the outside (15) would have been great, and you can get caught in a trap on the inside, (so) as long as we weren't (drawn) 1 or way outside. It's a big pot but it doesn't matter how big the pot is if you don't get a piece of it."
Dual Japan Cup (Jpn-I) winner Gentildonna was a hot favorite for last year's Sheema Classic, but could not get past St Nicholas Abbey. Connections for the 5-year-old mare will be hoping to go one better this year with Ryan Moore aboard.
"I have been very pleased with her work and her last fast gallop was a good one," trainer Sei Ishizaka said. She has settled in really well, on this her second trip, and we are very hopeful of a big run."
When winning her second Japan Cup in 2013, Gentildonna defeated compatriot filly Denim and Ruby by a nose. Together they give the nation a strong presence in a race that went to Japanese connections in 2001 with Stay Gold and 2006 with Heart's Cry.
French galloper Cirrus des Aigles will try to become the only horse to win the Sheema Classic twice, but he will have to overcome the widest draw in the 15-horse field.
Zee Bros takes on the last two winners of the Dubai Golden Shaheen, a 1,200 meter (about six-furlong) race on the all-weather track.
Reynaldothewizard won the race last year for trainer Satish Seemar, and Kypton Factor, third last year, won in 2012 for Bahrain's Fawzi Nass.
Zee Bros will break from post 6 in the Golden Shaheen.
"He blew out 10 days ago and was very, very sharp," trainer Seth Benzel said. "He went :47.40 (for a half-mile) and galloped out :59.40 (for five furlongs). So at that point between the races we've had here and that work, we're really happy where we sit. He's going in (to Saturday's race) nice and fresh."
Benzel was pleased with the post position.
"We'll tell (jockey) Frankie (Dettori) to go ahead and use his natural speed, put him in a comfortable position, relax and let everybody else pretty much have their game plan around us. I don't want him fighting it out the first part. Run relaxed, have the race go as easy as possible the first part of it, then give them a run."
Berlino Di Tiger, a grade III winner at Churchill Downs last year, takes on 11 in the Al Quoz Sprint, a 1,000-meter (about five-furlong) turf dash that also attracted last year's winner, Shea Shea, and Hong Kong speedster Amber Sky.
Shea Shea is the form horse at Meydan, holding the track record of :57.02 set in last year's Al Quoz Sprint, and winning the Meydan Sprint (UAE-III) March 8 on his seasonal debut .
According to head lad Caue Caramori, Berlino Di Tiger blew out a quarter-mile on soft Meydan turf the morning of March 27, going in :26 seconds with jockey Leandro Goncalves up.
"My dad (trainer Eduardo) thought he could have gone a little faster, but overall we're happy with it," the younger Caramori said. "He's in a good state of mind. We just wanted him to get a feel for the course."
The Brazilian-bred 6-year-old drew post 7 of 12 for the race, with the likely speed of Amber Sky drawn just to his outside.
"There is a difference between his speed and our speed," Caramori said. "We're going (forward). In races like this it's not common for every horse to run straight. We expect to lean outside some but not too much."
Also on the $27 million card, trainer Mike de Kock's Vercingetorix will try to retain his undefeated record when meeting 12 opponents in the Dubai Duty Free, including British-based Dank, the reigning Eclipse Award winning turf female, and multiple group I winner The Fugue.
In two U.S. starts last year, Dank won Beverly D. (gr. IT) and Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf (gr. I). She makes her first start since the Breeders' Cup.
Trainer Aidan O'Brien will try to win the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby (UAE-II) for the third consecutive year. He sends out 2013 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IT) runner-up Giovanni Boldini and Sir John Hawkins.
Soft Falling Rain will bid for a repeat win in the $1 million Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) and takes on Godolphin's Shuruq, winner of last year's United Arab Emirates Oaks (UAE-III) and twice a course and distance winner this season. The field also includes Flotilla, winner of the 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies' Turf (gr. IT) and last year's Poule d'Essai des Pouliches (Fr-I, French One Thousand Guineas).
Saeed bin Suroor will be seeking a fourth triumph in the $1 million Dubai Gold Cup (UAE-II) as he saddles last year's victor Cavalryman, seeking to become the first two-time winner.