Helissio to rise out of the dirt

Sue Montgomery says the Dubai World Cup will be a battle of form and balance
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Prize-Money of $4m, racing's largest purse, is up for grabs on Saturday night with the second running of the Dubai World Cup. According to official ratings, the 13 horses from six countries who will line up at Nad El Sheba are the most talented bunch ever assembled for an international contest. But the fate of the European challengers, led by Helissio from France, may turn on the desert's shifting sands.

The going, rather than the formbook, will probably be the key to the 10-furlong contest, so memorably won last year by the then infallible Cigar. When Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the leading owner and breeder of racehorses in Britain and crown prince of his native Emirate, decided to build his dream racecourse at Nad El Sheba, he opted for a dirt track rather than the traditional grass surface. The best horses in the US operate on dirt, and without them the race would have little credibility as an international championship. But it is not a surface that usually suits European-trained runners.

The difference in the two types of track is huge, according to Frankie Dettori. The Italian, who will be riding the locally trained Kammtarra in the big race, said: "It's like tennis on clay or grass. Some players are brilliant on clay all round the world and then they get to Wimbledon and struggle."

Some horses can adapt; others signally fail to, and the reasons have never really been identified. It may be in the genes, but plenty of American- bred horses race with success in Europe. Cigar, sired by a top European turf runner, was an abject failure until tried on dirt. Team US supplied the first three home last year: Cigar was an acknowledged champion, but the pair who followed him in, Soul Of The Matter and L'Carriere, were second-division performers at best. They had British premiership types Pentire and Halling well beaten, but on grass there is no doubt the positions would have been reversed.

Kammtarra - a half-brother to Europe's unbeaten champion of 1995, Lammtarra - is one who has not only coped with the switch from grass to sand but apparently got better as a result. As a late-maturing type, though, he may have done so anyway. The four-year-old is one of the squad trained by Saeed Bin Suroor for Mohammed's Godolphin operation, whose horses winter in the Dubai sunshine before transferring to Newmarket for the British season.

No better than a progressive handicapper last year, he has improved physically during the close season and recently proved his well-being with a brace of victories at Nad El Sheba. Simon Crisford, the Godolphin racing manager, said: "He is a rangy sort, bigger than Lammtarra, and has filled out. He also seems to be a natural on the sand, very well-balanced. Those are the two plus factors, but the World Cup is a huge step up in class and he really is being thrown in at the deep end."

He is indeed. Of the five British-trained contenders, four were Group or Grade 1 winners last year, and their record reflects the increasingly international nature of the sport: Singspiel's victories from Michael Stoute's yard included the Canadian International and the Japan Cup; the soft-ground specialist Flemensfirth (John Gosden) won the Premio Roma in Italy; Bijou D'Inde (Mark Johnson), the St James's Palace Stakes at Ascot, and Luso (Clive Brittain), the Aral-Pokal in Germany.

France is represented by last year's European middle- distance champion Helissio, Australia by the tough five-year-old Juggler, and Japan by the only filly Hokuta Vega, who has a six out of six record on 10-furlong provincial dirt tracks. On the book, the Elie Lellouche- trained Helissio and Singspiel are superior to the two best Americans, stablemates Siphon and Sandpit. That Brazilian-bred pair, whose trainer Richard Mandella handled Soul Of The Matter, have top form on dirt under their belt this season, with Siphon beating Sandpit by three lengths in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap three weeks ago.

Cigar's epic victory under floodlights was the perfect result to launch Sheikh Mohammed's dream event. There is no obvious superstar in this year's field, but one may be born if Helissio, who looked an absolute machine when he won last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, can overcome the unfamiliarity of the conditions as well as his rivals.