Godolphin gear up again for charge on Kentucky
The racing calendar has reached its Spaghetti Junction, where not even the road to Aintree – the only artery that courses from one end of the sporting nation to the other – can sweep through a distracting variety of slip roads, traffic lights and roundabouts. For this chaotic nexus, between National Hunt and Flat, can never be reduced to a simple matter of one season waning, as the other waxes. The John Smith's Grand National, for instance, is scarcely the only other business on an agenda still featuring Denman, who runs at Aintree on Thursday, and Master Minded, still a month away from a trip to Punchestown. And who, equally, could view the richest race in the world, staged in the desert over the weekend, as a mere prelude?
True, Dubai World Cup night raised more questions than those it answered, but then that is the whole pleasure of every racing journey. There was certainly a suitable éclat to the way Well Armed, in winning the big race by 14 lengths, brought down the curtain on Nad al Sheba – site of so many pioneering endeavours but now being bulldozed to make way for Meydan, perhaps the most audacious sporting facility ever.
Eoin Harty, his trainer, was once integral to Sheikh Mohammed's ambitions, supervising an academy of Godolphin juveniles in California, and it was gratifying to see such a pleasant man confirm his eligibility among the elite. At the very first attempt, lest we forget, Harty nurtured one of Godolphin's very best talents in Street Cry – the top American juvenile of 2000, and eventually a Dubai World Cup winner. He still trains for his old boss, and was clearly thrilled to vindicate the Sheikh's original judgement in his own backyard.
Godolphin are now back on the Kentucky Derby trail, having been repeatedly ambushed by poor luck – above all when Street Cry was injured. They had expected Desert Party to prove their best candidate in the UAE Derby earlier on the card, but he could not get past Regal Ransom as they drew 15 lengths clear. The likelihood is that both colts will now go to Louisville.
Godolphin had also sent out the first two in the opener on a card dominated, until Well Armed, by local horses. Certainly, by winning both Group One prizes on turf, with Gladiatorus and Eastern Anthem, Mubarak Bin Shafya and Ahmed Ajtebi drew a line in the sand. Ajtebi's is a singular story, as a former camel rider whose apprentice stint with Clive Brittain was last year brought to an abrupt end by the immigration authorities. But the monstrous capacity of his mounts would seem to owe more to his trainer, a newcomer who made his name with endurance horses.
Many pundits are now urging Sheikh Mohammed to find Bin Shafya a role with Godolphin, but it is best to resist simplistic conclusions in this environment. Two years ago a trainer named Ismail Mohammed was credited with similar powers of transformation. He, too, emerged from nowhere – and, it must be said, has since seemed to return there just as quickly. His horses joined Godolphin after the Carnival, and seemed always to have been under the same umbrella. Likewise, it is clear that Eastern Anthem and Gladiatorus, previously with Saeed Bin Suroor, will be returned to his care at Godolphin. The one guarantee is that the Sheikh will have taken great satisfaction from the deeds of these horses in the hands of Emirati horsemen.
The Sheikh's habitual adversaries at Coolmore met a setback for their own Kentucky Derby hopes when Dunkirk was thwarted by Quality Road in the Florida Derby. But Todd Pletcher, Dunkirk's trainer, felt the track favoured front-runners, and his colt left no doubt about his talent in coasting towards a track-record pace before drawing six lengths clear of the third.
Meanwhile, Coolmore's European bastion was taking a cautious approach to its opening skirmishes. Aidan O'Brien had his first runners of 2009 at Leopardstown yesterday and, as usual, they largely needed the run. Instead it was his mentor, Jim Bolger, who maintained his brisk start to the campaign, saddling Maoineach to a striking success in the 1,000 Guineas Trial. This filly won a Group Three prize last summer, but failed to show her true colours in the Prix Marcel Boussac. Here she quickened past Heart Shaped, the Ballydoyle runner, to earn a quote of 20-1 from the sponsors for the Stan James 1,000 Guineas. Significantly, however, Bolger indicated that Cuis Ghaire remains his best candidate.
Intense Focus, Bolger's third consecutive Dewhurst winner, had earlier confirmed himself no New Approach when readily outpointed by Recharged in a similar race for colts. He ran creditably under his penalty, however, and Kevin Prendergast views the winner as a legitimate Classic prospect – albeit he is likely to be kept for his home Guineas.
Prendergast, of course, is one of the most respected surnames on the Irish Turf. And no less so Harty. Eoin traces his racing lineage back 130 years to "Boss" Harty, and his own father, Eddie, won the Grand National on Highland Wedding in 1969.
Somebody out there will create his own place in that pageant on Saturday, but the chances are that he will need a horse who likes decent ground. The track is drying, and a rainless week is forecast for Liverpool. More
than they managed in Dubai, funnily enough, but such is the delicious disorder of the racing spring.
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