Fight Night!

(Appears in the March 24, 2007 issue of The Blood-Horse)

“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and witness the Duel in the Desert…the Battle of the Blues…brother against brother…sheikh against sheikh. Come to the birthplace of the Thoroughbred and watch the two greatest horses in the world slug it out it in Dubai, the tropical oasis of the Middle East, for six-million dollars.

“In this corner, wearing the blue silks of Sheikh Hamdan, is the reigning Horse of the Year in North America, unbeaten in the United States, and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) and Uruguayan Triple Crown. Let’s hear it for Eeeen…Vaaa…Sooor!

“And in this corner, wearing the blue Godolphin silks of Sheikh Mohammed, is the undefeated sensation, as swift as a diving falcon, as powerful as a sirocco blowing across the desert. A warm welcome for Diiiscreeet Caat!”

But wait a minute. There is another combatant that is looking for equal billing. You can be sure that Premium Tap’s handlers feel he has a big chance to steal the show from Invasor and Discreet Cat in the March 31 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). And to add another Middle East twist to the event, the horse was sold over the winter to a Saudi Arabian king for the express purpose of winning the most prestigious race in Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup, also known as the King’s Cup, run at 11/2 miles. And Premium Tap accomplished that last month, racing in the colors of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and sons. So you can now add Dubai vs. Saudi Arabia to the mix.

Just imagine the evening of March 31, as a salmon pink sunset illuminates the mosques and ultra-modern skyscrapers off in the distance. Large groups of Muslims face Mecca and kneel in prayer. The sounds of bands playing provide a festive college-like atmosphere, while people of all nationalities mingle throughout Nad al Sheba Racetrack. Across the backstretch, four amazing horses, including Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) starter Lava Man, are stabled, waiting for their chance to be crowned Horse of the World.

There is something primal about this scene, as the Sport of Kings returns to its roots for the ultimate showdown, in which the kings of the sport issue the age-old challenge, “My horse is faster than your horse.”

So, who will it be? The mighty Invasor, whose only career defeat came at the hands of Discreet Cat, nine months his junior, in last year’s S & M al Naboodah Group UAE Derby (UAE-II) over this same Nad al Sheba track? The Uruguayan champion journeyed to the United States after that defeat and steamrolled his way to Horse of the Year honors with victories in the grade I Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, Whitney Handicap, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, followed by a brilliant score in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) in his first start of 2007.

Will it be Discreet Cat, who has sent speed figures soaring into orbit with his string of spectacular victories? Undefeated in six career starts, the exciting, but fragile, son of Forestry has won his races by an average margin of almost 61/2 lengths. In addition to his seven-length drubbing of Invasor, he coasted home by 101/4 lengths in the Jerome Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. II) and routed some of the fastest milers in the country in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) in a blazing 1:32.46. But will missing his prep for the World Cup due to a slight fever hurt his chances? It means he will have to go 11/4 miles for the first time in his career off a four-month layoff, with his only stiff work a “proper racecourse gallop” in company at Nad al Sheba.

And finally, will it be Premium Tap, who burst on the scene last September with a victory in the prestigious Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at odds of 31-1? Following a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the son of Pleasant Tap destroyed his field by 71/4 lengths in the grade I Clark Handicap in a sharp 1:47.39 for the nine furlongs. After being sold, he overcame an eventful journey to Saudi Arabia, in which he was delayed for two days in New York, to defeat the Argentine Horse of the Year Forty Licks, winner of nine of his 13 starts, including the group I Argentine Derby and Jockey Club. Premium Tap has remained in Saudi Arabia under the care of trainer John Kimmel’s assistant Loretta Lusteg.

“The World Cup has created incredible excitement here, as well it should,” said Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford. “You’ve got the two best horses in the world racing against each other, and it’s a great tribute to the Dubai World Cup and to both horses. And may the best horse win.”

Sporting capital of the Middle East

“You come to expect an event like this nowadays,” Crisford continued. “The Maktoums love their horse racing, and to see the best horses compete against each other is what it’s all about. Dubai is the sporting capital of the Middle East; we’ve got Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, and all the top jockeys. And now we’ve got Invasor and Discreet Cat. The fact that they’re owned by brothers makes it even more exciting. There’s no question about either one of them not wanting to face up to the other one just because they’re brothers; they love the friendly competition.”

With all the talk centering around the “two best horses in the world,” Crisford was quick to add that it would be unwise to forget Premium Tap, as well as some of the others that may show up.

“Premium Tap ran well in Saudi Arabia,” Crisford said. “To be honest, I think it’s dangerous to just consider two horses. Every race pans out differently and I think we have to wait until we see the full field.

"You have to give him maximum respect. He ran a huge race in the Breeders’ Cup and he obviously has good forward momentum going into this race. And there will be others in the race equally deserving of respect. It’s shaping up to be the best World Cup yet.”

But the horse they all have to beat is Invasor, who may have run the best race of his life in the Donn Handicap, in which he had to overcome traffic problems. After charging through a narrow opening along the inside, he drew off to win comfortably over a talented field.

“This race is going to generate a lot of excitement,” Invasor’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “You’ve got two great horses going up against each other. And you also have Premium Tap, who is a very good horse. If he wins, the Maktoums will be the first ones to congratulate the Saudi people. They’re just great sportsmen.

“I’m sure it’s a worry for the people preparing Discreet Cat that he was forced to miss his prep. But he’s such a talented horse, and as I proved with Invasor in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, winning off a layoff can be done with special horses. And Discreet Cat is a special horse, so he can probably overcome the lack of a prep.”

McLaughlin is looking forward to returning to Dubai, where he spent 10 years training for the Maktoums.

“What I’m really looking forward to is going back to Dubai and bringing Sheikh Hamdan America’s Horse of the Year, and maybe the best horse in the world,” McLaughlin said. “It would be so great to go back and win the big race for him. Last year, Discreet Cat beat us fair and square by seven lengths, but we gave him nine pounds and it was only a nine-furlong race; this year we’re going 10 furlongs. And he’s a much better horse this year.”

As for Premium Tap, Kimmel is quietly laying in wait, and is not at all intimidated by Invasor or Discreet Cat. He has always believed in this horse, and realizes this is his big chance to dethrone Invasor and silence the Discreet Cat worshippers.

“I’m going there to win,” Kimmel said bluntly. “I don’t have any ambitions of having to beat anyone in particular. My horse on his best day is able to run with any horse in the world. Any horse who runs a ‘minus 21/2’ on the Ragozin (speed figures) is as good as any horse.”

But Kimmel admits that Invasor and Discreet Cat deserve top billing, and is willing to wait for the race to make his statement.

“He probably doesn’t deserve equal billing with those two,” he said. “One is Horse of the Year and the other is undefeated, and I’m just little ol’ Premium Tap. And little ol’ Premium Tap is just gonna have to go there and let his racing speak for him, because he hasn’t gotten respect anywhere. Nobody really considers him a major player. But they just don’t know. They see that he’s been beaten by Invasor twice, but he didn’t run his ‘A’ race in the Breeders’ Cup, and that was born out in the Clark. For any horse to come back on a such a short turnaround, with two trips to Churchill Downs, and run the kind of race he did, he’s going to have to be reckoned with. I think you’d be silly to dismiss him.

“And who knows how Invasor is going to be without Lasix? He didn’t run with it in the UAE Derby and was beaten soundly (no medication is allowed in Dubai). I guess there’s some concern about Discreet Cat, not only how far he wants to go, but the horse hasn’t run in four months and missed his prep race. All I know is that I welcome the opportunity to face them, because if you want to be considered the best you have to beat the best. If I can get him to repeat his Clark performance I don’t think there’s anyone who can beat him.”

Premium Tap’s former owners, George “Bud” Kline, Peter Alevizos, and David Whelihan, have mixed feelings about selling a horse who had given them so many thrills and was looking at a huge year in 2007, but the offer was too lucrative to turn down. They still root for the horse and follow him closely.

“They may be having sellers’ remorse, but they made a ton of money,” Kimmel said. “Now, they hope he does well and let the chips fall where they may. The winner of this race will be considered the best horse in the world.”

So, as the racing world plans to gather at Nad al Sheba for a night of spectacular racing, the excitement starts to build. And what better place to stage an event of this magnitude?

“It was in this region that the modern-day Thoroughbred originated,” Crisford said. “Whether you’re talking about the Darley Arabian or the Godolphin Arabian or the Byerly Turk, they came from this part of the world. You go back that length of time and you think, ‘Here we are in 2007 and you’ve got the two highest-rated horses in the world facing each other at Nad al Sheba.’ It’s like returning to your roots, to where it all began. It’s fantastic; it’s brilliant.”