The Classic and The Cup

By Michele MacDonald
The following feature is reprinted from the official Breeders' Cup souvenir magazine.

The challenge was virtually as old as the written history of mankind: Prove who has the fastest horse. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chief of the vaunted Godolphin empire, embellished the dare with $4 million to make it the most lucrative test of speed and stamina anywhere in the world, the Dubai World Cup gained instant credibility.

Halfway around the globe, the late Allen Paulson marked the date of March 27, 1996, on his calendar for champion Cigar. Paulson had bred and owned the horse he believed was the best runner on the planet and he was eager to meet the challenge, despite the uncertainty of racing in the Arabian desert.

"Allen Paulson was a very, very brave kind of guy and very much a sportsman," recalled Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott. "He always told me the risk is measured by the size of the reward. He was not one to back down if he thought there was a good reward at the end. He was not afraid to be beaten; he loved to win, but he never panicked over a chance of being whupped."

With every determined stride as he gritted his teeth and refused to be passed down the long sandy stretch of Nad al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai, Cigar generously rewarded both Paulson and Sheikh Mohammed. In the 2:03.84 pulsing minutes it took him to travel 2,000 meters (about 11Ú4 miles) around the pyramid-shaped track, the son of Palace Music earned a then record $2.4 million while forever changing the landscape of the sport and helping to shape the destiny of Dubai.

Immediately, Cigar's victory cemented a link between the World Cup, which now is worth $6 million ($3.6 million to the winner) and still ranks as the globe's richest race, and the Breeders' Cup Classic, the second most valuable contest on dirt, now worth $4 million. Not only had the 1995 Classic winner proved his mettle in Dubai, he had led a parade of Americans across the finish line, with Soul of the Matter and L'Carriere behind him, as they had been in the Classic. American form on dirt at 11Ú4 miles would not be bested by runners based in Europe, Japan, and Australia in what was truly the most international race that had ever been run on the surface.

All the competitors and other visitors who witnessed the triumph were struck by the gallant moment-and by the steel beams beginning to arise from the stark sands of the tiny United Arab Emirates state bordering the gleaming blue waters of the Persian Gulf. They would go back to their homes and tell others of this intriguing land, encouraging future visits that would reveal new vistas of sumptuous hotels, sprawling shopping malls, and sinuous highways.

"Cigar's win was absolutely vital," said Martin Talty, manager of the international department for the Dubai Racing Club and a witness to the synergy of racing and tourism since moving to the city in 1996. "Allen Paulson and Bill Mott showed that it could be done. It took away any sort of phobia Americans or others might have had about traveling to Dubai.

"This is what the World Cup was designed to do," he added. "Dubai has been the fastest growing city in the world. All the boom has happened in the last nine or 10 years. People who come back annually say they can't believe how much it's changed from one year to another."

Horizons also opened on other lands never before visited by Americans and their best Thoroughbreds due to Paulson's plucky bid, cast despite the fact Cigar was recovering from a quarter crack and was not at his best.

"It certainly inspired more United States trainers to travel than ever before," noted Pam Blatz-Murff, senior vice president for operations of Breeders' Cup Ltd. She pointed out that international competitions in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan now almost regularly draw American competitors, who also make occasional forays to Europe.

But perhaps no international races have a link quite like that between the Classic and the World Cup.

Each year, Talty and Blatz-Murff keenly eye the results of the other's race, with Talty often extending an instant World Cup invitation-all expenses paid-to the Classic winner or runner-up.

"When looking at assembling a field for the World Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic is the pre-eminent race," Talty said. "There is never a bad winner. It always throws out the best horses in America."

While seeking to live up to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships moniker, Blatz-Murff said she always wants to assemble fields with the best international talent. The World Cup program, which now includes six Thoroughbred races worth a total of $15 million, is a prime provider.

Essential elements
As the 10th anniversary of Cigar's Classic victory at Belmont Park-immortalized by Tom Durkin with his "incomparable, invincible, unbeatable" superlatives as the handsome bay capped a perfect 10-for-10 season and earned his first of two Horse of the Year titles-is celebrated this year, only one other horse, the gigantic Pleasantly Perfect, can claim the distinction of winning both the World Cup and the Classic. Cigar and Pleasantly Perfect also share another part of history in that each finished third in his second try to win the Classic, with Cigar missing by inches in a photo finish at Woodbine in 1996 and Pleasantly Perfect compromised by soreness in a hind ankle after kicking the starting gate last year at Lone Star Park.

In the years since Paulson accepted Sheikh Mohammed's challenge, a total of 21 horses have been tested in both races with, for the most part, their performances remarkably consistent. In fact, Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro replicated their one-two finish in the 2003 Classic at Santa Anita Park in what proved to be a fiercer duel in the '04 World Cup.

In the very first year, Cigar proved that a horse can recover from the physical demands of a trip that takes around 20 hours each way, bouncing back in a little over two months to extend his unbroken skein of wins to 15 in the Massachusetts Handicap and then 16 some six weeks later in the Arlington Citation Challenge Invitational Stakes.

"He was a very tired horse when he came out of the World Cup, but he recuperated very well," Mott said. "We shipped him from Dubai to New York, and the weather was cool and he came right back around. In 30 days, you could look at him and you would have never known he had a hard trip."

Nearly every trainer who has tried to accomplish the Classic-World Cup double believes that several elements are essential in the quest. Horses must be durable, adaptable, and not prone to severe internal bleeding, as medications are not permitted in Dubai. Their trainers must know them inside and out in order to hit both races at peak form.

"You go to Dubai if your horse is doing fantastic. If he's not, you don't go, because he's not going to perform," said Bob Baffert, who saddled Silver Charm for his scintillating World Cup victory by a nose over Godolphin's top turf runner Swain in 1998. The two runners duplicated their battle in that year's Classic at Churchill Downs, although both were passed by winner Awesome Again in deep stretch as Swain and jockey Frankie Dettori veered to the outside rail.

Although Silver Charm obviously still possessed exceptional ability, Baffert said he discovered how difficult it can be to manage recovery from the Dubai trip.

"I gave him too much time off and he got real big on me. He got like 'The Refrigerator' (former National Football League defensive tackle William Perry)," he said. "He must have put on 150 pounds, easily, and it was hard to get him back to his previous form."

Silver Charm returned to Dubai in 1999 but could finish no better than sixth behind Godolphin's Almutawakel, who ran the race of his career, remarkably, in his first start on dirt. Almutawakel later was sent to Gulfstream Park for the 1999 Classic following a second in the Woodward and third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and ran a creditable fifth in a race dominated by longshots.

Baffert also won the 2001 World Cup with Captain Steve, who had demonstrated his quality in a strong third-place effort in the 2000 Classic at Churchill Downs behind Tiznow and Giant's Causeway and ahead of Albert the Great, Lemon Drop Kid, and Fusaichi Pegasus.

Rewards and rest
Richard Mandella, who trained both Soul of the Matter and Pleasantly Perfect, as well as six other World Cup competitors, none of which finished worse than fourth, and nine total starters in the Classic, said he always allots several months of rest for his horses when they return to the U.S. from Dubai before aiming them at the Breeders' Cup.

"They'll fool you often. They don't come back looking bad," Mandella said. "When a cheap horse gets tired, he looks bad. When a good horse does it, they're strong enough that they sometimes won't show you until they really get tired. And that's an easy way to make a mistake with a horse of the Dubai class. Those horses are sometimes the hardest to read when they're tired."

Mandella totally dismisses the myth that horses are never the same after competing in Dubai.

"I'm sick of hearing that," he said, pointing out that many horses that run in the Kentucky Derby are never heard from again, but that fact has not generated the same kind of comments. "I will say that it's just another very hard race, just as any Derby or Breeders' Cup race is, and it's even a little harder on them because you have to travel. So, you'd better be prepared to pay them back for it."

Pleasantly Perfect, who won the Pacific Classic the same year as the World Cup, was more influenced by a sudden change in attitude following his trip to Dubai than by any lingering jet lag.

"He had heard about his new job at the breeding farm and he was very interested in it," Mandella quipped. "Until the last six months, he was the most laid back, quiet, gentle horse you ever saw, and then he got a little studdish and had a different mindset, and I think it affected his racing."

Although Medaglia d'Oro did not race again following the World Cup, trainer Bobby Frankel said that ankle issues that had long troubled the then 5-year-old were responsible and not anything connected with the trip.

"I can't blame it on Dubai," said Frankel, who added that he would try the Classic-World Cup double again with the right horse, as he did with Aptitude in 2001.

Unfortunately, owner Frank Stronach rejected the notion with last year's Classic winner Ghostzapper, trained by Frankel. Stronach's decision left runner-up Roses in May to snatch victory in the 2005 World Cup and achieve the most significant career win for owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey, trainer Dale Romans, and jockey John Velazquez. About five months later, however, Ken Ramsey retired the five-year-old after a tendon problem first diagnosed in 2003 reappeared during training for a return to racing in America.

L'Carriere, runner-up to Cigar in the 1995 Classic at odds of 51-to-1, quickly taught trainer H. James Bond the best way to manage a horse competing in both races.

"If I had it to do over again, I would definitely likely stay (in Dubai) another week with the horse and let him catch his breath," said Bond, noting that he later employed that strategy with his "iron horse," Behrens, instead of immediately shipping him back home.

A son of Pleasant Colony, like Pleasantly Perfect, Behrens compiled the remarkable record of running in the 1997 Classic, in which he was seventh as a 3-year-old, the '98 World Cup (fifth), the '99 Classic (seventh), and the 2000 World Cup, in which Bond says the horse "ran one of the best races of his life" when second to Godolphin's freakish Dubai Millennium. "He was the only horse who even made it a horse race," Bond said.

Even though Bond conceded that he hates to lose, Sheikh Mohammed, as part of his efforts to lure people to discover Dubai, more than makes the trip worthwhile; Behrens earned $1.2 million for second. Many of the 21 horses who have competed in both races earned the bulk of their career earnings with their performances, such as Roses in May, who hauled in $4.4 million in those two starts.

And, as Talty pointed out, the World Cup in particular showcases the horses to international breeders and investors. After winning in Dubai, Ramsey and Mike Pegram, owner of Captain Steve, sold the breeding rights in their horses to Japanese interests.

Daring Sportsmanship
After a decade of World Cups, the horses who also have competed in the Classic have left deep hoofprints on racing-even those who did not win either race.

No one could forget Sakhee's thrilling challenge of Tiznow at Belmont in the 2001 Classic, which fell just short even though it was the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner's first start on dirt. Sakhee came back the next year and finished third in the World Cup behind his Godolphin stablemate Street Cry.

Multiple group I winner Halling, an exceptional racehorse in Europe, holds the dubious distinction of being the only one of the group to finish last in both races after catching a muddy track and Cigar in the 1995 Classic and the American juggernaut in the inaugural World Cup. But that record speaks more to Sheikh Mohammed's daring sportsmanship than it does to Halling's talents.

Dedicated to making the World Cup an event worthy of promoting Dubai as it grows its economy beyond diminishing oil reserves, Sheikh Mohammed has frequently entered his family's best horses in the race, and sometimes in the Classic, too-even if they have earned their reputations on turf, as had multiple group I winners Swain and Sakhee.

This bold strategy paid off with Singspiel in the 1997 World Cup following his runner-up effort in the '96 Breeders' Cup Turf. Even when it did not work, however, racing was enriched when Sheikh Mohammed ran Epsom Derby winner High-Rise and eventual grass champion Daylami in the 1999 World Cup that also featured American classic winners Silver Charm and Victory Gallop (the latter finished third, reaching the finish line ahead of the other three) in the first-ever matchup of that kind. Daylami went on to victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Sheikh Mohammed's commitment to racing has been mirrored by the continuing sponsorship of the World Cup by Emirates, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates and one of the fastest growing carriers on the globe, and its expanding sponsorships of major international racing events. This year, with Dodge holding the Classic sponsorship, Emirates has joined with Breeders' Cup to sponsor both the Distaff and Filly & Mare Turf while highlighting its new nonstop service between JFK International Airport, which lies just a few miles from Belmont Park, and Dubai.

"We're very happy to have Emirates on board, and to have them as a viable sponsor of racing is very important to all of us," said Blatz-Murff. "What has happened in Dubai and how (Sheikh Mohammed) has developed it is going to go down in the history books as to what to do with a country that had nothing and all of a sudden becomes the Hong Kong of the Middle East."

So much change has occurred so fast in Dubai that Talty said the only real way to gauge it is by looking at photographs.

"It started out as a nice little city with some nice little housing projects in the desert," said Mandella. "Last year, I went back and tried to find the first hotel we stayed at and couldn't find it. It was buried in the middle of the city now. You can't imagine how much it's grown. You have to see it to believe it."

Michele MacDonald has covered horse racing for more than 20 years for a variety of publications and has reported on 15 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic and seven editions of the Dubai World Cup.