Kelleway's Vortex ready to shine in desert rain

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The Independent Online

That jump racing in the middle of winter should be at the mercy of bad weather comes under the "dog bites man" heading, but those in charge of sport in the desert might feel justifiably piqued to have to watch the skies with apprehension. Today's start of the two-month, $31m (£16m) extravaganza that is the Dubai Carnival is in disarray, though. The 54 millimetres of rain that have fallen on Nad Al Sheba in the past 48 hours make the mere 30 threatening Ascot's Saturday card seem barely a sprinkling.

The freak Wagnerian conditions of the past week mean that the sub-tropical Persian Gulf coast of the United Arab Emirates has already exceeded its annual allowance of rain and although today's show will go on, it may be only at half strength. All today's races are now expected to be run on dirt, instead of three on turf, and a decision will be made this morning.

Spirits, however, remain undampened by the record precipitation. "I'm just off to the launch party on the lawns in front of the grandstand," reported trainer Gay Kelleway, in town with her beloved charge Vortex, last night. "And I'm wearing my wellies. It's been raining non stop since I got here on Saturday and the horses were up to their knees in water this morning walking alongside the training track."

The World Cup, first run in 1996, is now an established part of the elite international calendar and this year's edition, on 29 March, will be, with a purse of $6m, the richest horse-race ever held. The Carnival, a 10-meeting build-up to the big night itself, is now in its fifth year and has, entirely in accordance with the hopes and plans of its instigator, Sheikh Mohammed, developed a cosmopolitan sub-culture of its own.

In four years, 23 racing nations, from obvious mainstreamers to less heralded backwaters such as India, Greece, the Czech Republic and Denmark, have taken part. Three newcomers – New Zealand, Uruguay and Argentina – will join this time; 104 trainers from 21 countries will field runners.

The locals – who include the Godolphin team – have the best win record to date, with 140 victories, though that does represent a poor strike-rate, just 7.2 per cent. Of the raiders, British yards have done best numerically, with 53 wins from 521 runs. But overwhelmingly the best strike-rate at the top of the leaderboard belongs to the South Africans, who in the past have arrived at the Carnival with ratings that could most kindly be called generous and have mopped up 52 wins from 289 runs, at 18 per cent.

Today's richest contest, with a first prize of £60,000, is the first round of the Maktoum Challenge, over a mile on sand. Two represent Britain, Vortex and his old rival Jack Sullivan, from Gerard Butler's yard.

And no one could accuse nine-year-old Vortex of hiding his light. He is a horse most trainers would kill for; he has raced 68 times over seven years, won 17 times (13 on artificial surfaces, four on turf), earned £330,000. Even in a large yard, he would be a star, but in Kelleway's relatively small string, and for his devoted owners, Chris and Andrea Wilkinson and Patrick Ewing, he is a deity.

He was acquired for 18,000gns as 69-rated a three-year-old maiden, cast off from Sir Michael Stoute's yard. He has raced in Europe, North America and Japan, and is a Carnival old hand, having won there on grass and been placed on dirt last year. "He's the soundest horse I've ever trained, legwise," said the Exning-based trainer. "And the way he keeps his consistency and enthusiasm never cease to amaze me, he's just awesome. But then, he had a good start in life at Sir Michael's and he gets more than five-star treatment with us."

Vortex warmed up for today with a third place at Lingfield 12 days ago, with Jack Sullivan second. "He's been here a week, and I think he's better than he was this time last year," added Kelleway. "When I rode him this morning to open his tubes up he was pulling at me and put two massive bucks in, so he's feeling great. And he's race fit; some of the ones who have been here longer haven't been able to work properly because of the weather."

Johnny Murtagh is the man charged with delivering Vortex's trademark late challenge; the canny old gelding has only once won by daylight. The favourite is likely to be last year's winner, Imperialista, one of Frankie Dettori's five rides on the card for Saeed Bin Suroor as the blues get their 2008 campaign under way.

At Thurles today Willie Mullins is double-handed in the Grade Two Kinloch Brae Chase, with the 2005 Grand National winner Hedgehunter and 2004 Royal & SunAlliance Chase winner Rule Supreme, who will be having his first run for almost three years.

Chepstow tomorrow has been abandoned and Monday's Lingfield turf card has been switched to Folkestone.