These midwinter weeks, albeit proving rather milder than last year, to the significant benefit of the Levy, are invariably the bleakest in the Turf calendar. Many Cheltenham contenders are taking a break, leaving a suitably dim, half-lit quality to the January programme. It is with corresponding envy, then, that those jockeys shivering at Wolverhampton today will look up to the monitors in the weighing room and see various colleagues riding at the opening meeting of the 2012 Dubai Carnival.
A series of 16 fixtures reaches its climax on 31 March, when the Dubai World Cup card will again be the richest in history. In the meantime, 23 prizes of $100,000 (£64,000) or more will be contested at the breathtaking racecourse at Meydan. With the help of seductive travel subsidies, the eighth Carnival will be more cosmopolitan than ever. There were 200 international runners last year, up from 103 at the inaugural Carnival in 2004. This time, the organisers have accepted 220 out of 360 overseas applications, and those already in the quarantine barn include horses from Singapore, Brazil and Norway.
The Carnival begins with a two-day challenge between a dozen of the world's leading jockeys, but perhaps its most gratifying feature, from a British perspective, is its tendency to reward enterprise among some of the sport's less familiar names. Sadly, Roger Teal has been obliged to retire Steele Tango after the star of his Epsom stable suffered an injury in preparing for today's card. But the horse's achievements last year, when he won two handicaps together worth around £130,000, and also finished second in a Grade Two race, measured the rewards available to even small operators with sufficient ambition. Among those seeking to emulate Teal's example today are Michael Attwater, Julia Feilden and Paul Midgley.
The Carnival will again be a priority for the Godolphin horses wintering at Al Quoz. One of the key themes of 2012 will be the relative fortunes of the two Godolphin trainers, Saeed Bin Suroor having been unmistakably eclipsed in Europe last year by his promoted assistant, Mahmood al-Zarooni. The latter hopes to run Blue Bunting, his first British Classic winner, on the trials card on 10 March in preparation for the Sheema Classic. His possible contenders for the World Cup include Dubai Prince, Casamento and French Navy, while Al Zarooni nominates Zip Top as a likely type for the UAE Derby. This colt became Sheikh Mohammed's latest purchase from Jim Bolger after finishing second to the Investec Derby favourite, Camelot, in the Racing Post Trophy.
Big guns from the United States for whom a World Cup bid has been mentioned include Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner, who missed the rest of last season after an injury in the Belmont Stakes; Game On Dude, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Classic; and the outstanding filly Royal Delta.
One or two home fires will still be stoked, however, and yesterday Nicky Henderson introduced yet another promising recruit. Though Oscar Nominee won only a maiden hurdle at Southwell, the manner of his 27-length success so impressed Ladbrokes that they introduced him at 16-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Sundown Trail (2.10 Sedgefield) Needed his comeback, but renewed a progressive overall profile round here last time, looking equal to this mark.
Pepite Rose (2.00 Ludlow) Held by Grams And Ounces on their meeting last week, but will come on for that, whereas the winner may be too short in the betting after a busy spell.
One to watch
Batonnier (Alan King) was tanking along in rear before weaving through for second at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, just flattening out on the hill after a lay-off.
Where the money's going
The sponsors saw immediate interest in Finian's Rainbow when opening a book yesterday on the Victor Chandler Chase, and he is 9-4 from 11-4 to win at Ascot a fortnight on Saturday.