Grey Memo, working out in Dubai on Thursday.

Grey Memo, working out in Dubai on Thursday.

Associated Press

On Eve of World Cup, Focus is on Racing Not Nearby War

The heat is on in Dubai. It can be felt not just from the baking sun that beats through the hazy skyline, but among the trainers who have produced the strongest ever numerical raiding party for Saturday's $15.2 million World Cup meeting.

The focus, in particular, falls on Todd Pletcher, who sends out Harlan's Holiday to bid for a fourth American success in the World Cup itself.

Having taken in the Triple Crown series and Breeders' Cup last year, Pletcher believes the Harlan's Holiday relishes tough challenges. He'll need to, because here he faces a high calibre field that is headed by the favourite Nayef.

Under the regular supervision of Marcus Tregoning, Nayef has been in Dubai since last November solely to be prepared for this race. His work has been highly encouring throughout that period. Another European challenger not to be under estimated is the French filly Aquarelliste on her final run before being retired to stud.

The home team of Godolphin also looks strong, although there has been considerable surprise that Frankie Dettori has deserted Grandera, who he rode to three Group 1 wins last season, in favour of the younger and less experienced Moon Ballad. Dettori feels Moon Ballad is better suited to this race, but is unsure he has made the right choice. "You can't count on me. I might have got it wrong," he said.

Todd Pletcher lacks such hesitancy about Harlan's Holiday, who has thrived during his time here. Pletcher is just one of a confident band of American trainers who believe that the "true dirt horses" hold a major advantage.

Take Bill Currin, who takes on Godolphin's Kentucky Derby hope Inamorato in the UAE Derby with Outta Here.

The pair met last season over five-and-a-half furlongs at Hollywood Park. Now they clash over 10, and Currin said this morning: "My horse needs a distance. He has the advantage over a lot of horses having raced on dirt, he's had seven races, he's 100 per cent sound and loves the track."

Outta Here, who is joined in the $2 million UAE Derby by fellow American Byzantium, worked about four furlongs under the lights at Nad Al Sheba on Wednesday night in :45.67.

His jockey Kent Desormeaux is in for a busy time tomorrow, having also been booked to ride Blue Burner, now running under the Saudi banner, in the World Cup, local hope Conroy in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen over six furlongs on dirt, and the Warren Stute-trained Grey Memo, who is bidding for a repeat win in the $1 million Godolphin Mile.

"Outta Here is why I came," Desormeaux said emphatically, adding: "I don't know much about Blue Burner (who was ridden mostly by Jerry Bailey when in training on the East Coast by Bill Mott), but he's the type of horse that is very capable and just has to find his stride."

The U.S. has a strong representation in the Mile, with Grey Memo joined by Cayoke (Tyler Baze), Easyfromthegitgo (Olivier Peslier), Lusty Latin (Alex Solis), and Mr John (John Velazquez). Peslier, France's most successful jockey, was recommended to Steve Asmussen by his brother Cash.

This is a first time in Dubai for 20-year-old Baze, who reflected a genuine excitement among the America connections when saying: "This means a lot to me. A lot of people never get the chance to come here." Baze also rides Avanzado for Doug O'Neill in the Golden Shaheen.

Even the group 1 Dubai Duty Free, a nine-furlong race on turf, has an American link as the South African mare Ipi Tombe, a hot favourite after defeating males twice over the winter at Nad Al Sheba, has been purchased in part by Team Valor and Kentucky-based WinStar Farm and will continue her career in the U.S.

Confidence is emanating from Jeff Mullins for both Captain Squire in the Shaheen and Lusty Latin in the Mile. Mullins is delighted with Captain Squire's gate position of stall 11 out of 13. "The post position really improved our confidence," he said. "Both my horses are well drawn and have been going good. They have worked under the lights in the evening and both went well." Mullins welcomed the rain that whizzed into Dubai on Wednesday and left just as quickly. "The track has been pretty hard until this morning," he said.

As he reflected over breakfast early today on his reasons for competing at the meeting, Mullins spoke in awe of the prize-money that is on offer. "There just is no comparison to the States," he said. "It's amazing."

Like almost every connection of an American horse, Mullins had few qualms about being in Dubai at a time when America is at war with Iraq, 500 miles away. "We have been in pretty close contact and we were pretty much assured that everything was going to be safe," he said. "We never had any doubts about coming here."

Nonetheless, the conflict in Iraq has cast a cloud over the meeting, to the inevitable discomfort of the organizers who have been taken aback by a series of questioning newspaper articles over whether the meeting should have gone ahead. The Times of London referred, in its headline, claimed: "World Cup Walks Tightrope Of Taste". Lavish events such as the traditional Arabian Nights desert party have been notably lower in attendance, and the regular firework display was cancelled, as, most likely, will be the race meeting's opening ceremony tomorrow.

The privately held view in Dubai has been consistent: Dubai is not at war with Iraq. Nonetheless the presence of so many American and British nationals prompted the manager of the media hotel to issue hand delivered notes to some guests assuring them that their "safety and comfort" was being treated as a priority.

Although unavoidably subdued, Dubai has not proved a threatening place to be – far from it. And come Saturday night, the only 'action' being talked about will hopefully be that between some of the world's finest horses on a race card that can be expected to produce plenty of thrills and excitement.