By Ed McNamara
Thoroughbred racing is a very old sport that tends to resist change. When prominent breeder John Gaines, the father of the Breeders’ Cup, introduced the concept in 1982, a friend said, “John, what have you been smoking?”
When Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum created the $4 million Dubai World Cup in 1996, there were serious doubts about whether foreign horses could do their best after long flights into a hot climate.
Like the Breeders’ Cup, the Dubai World Cup became an international destination despite early skepticism.
Saturday will mark its 25th running, and its $12 million purse has drawn 14 runners representing seven countries. The 1 1/4-mile Group 1 tops a nine-stakes card worth $26.5 million. It wasn’t staged last year because of the pandemic, and COVID-19 protocols will force this renewal to be run behind closed doors at ultramodern Meydan Racecourse.
Twenty-five years ago, Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey rode the great Cigar to victory in the World Cup’s debut.
“I felt like an Olympian,” Bailey said in 2015. “It was the closest I would get to representing my country, and it helped that [owner] Allen Paulson’s silks were red, white and blue.
“Listen, the Kentucky Derby is the greatest race we have in America, but that moment on Cigar may well be the best moment of my life.”
In Arabic, Meydan loosely translates as “a place where people meet and compete.” When $26.5 million is up for grabs, they come from the ends of the Earth.
The card attracted more than 100 horses from 11 countries, with seven represented in the big race. Besides four runners from the United States — Mystic Guide, Jesus’ Team, Sleepy Eyes Todd, Title Ready — and five from Dubai — Gifts of Gold, Military Law, Capezzano, Hypothetical, Thegreatcollector — Great Scot (Saudi Arabia), Magny Cours (France), Chuwa Wizard (Japan), Salute The Soldier (Bahrain), and Ajuste Fiscal (Uruguay) will compete.
Topping the undercard is the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic, a 1 1/2-mile turf race featuring Mishriff, longshot winner of the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 20. If trainer John Gosden had opted instead for the World Cup, Mishriff would have been a heavy favorite. American-based Channel Maker, a four-time Grade 1 winner, also will go in the Sheema Classic.
Another key race is the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby, which offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the first four finishers (100, 40, 20, 10).
Unlike previous World Cups, when Cigar, Arrogate and Dubai Millennium looked almost unbeatable, there is no intimidating favorite in a solid but unspectacular field. Mystic Guide is the lukewarm early-line favorite to give Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin empire its ninth World Cup champion and third in a row, following Thunder Snow in 2018 and 2019. Magny Cours, in his dirt debut for French wizard Andre Fabre, and Gifts of Gold also will carry Godolphin’s silks of royal blue, light blue and white trim.
New Orleans-based Michael Stidham trains the lightly raced Mystic Guide, who never has been out of the money in seven starts (three wins, two seconds, two thirds). The 4-year-old colt ran second in his only attempt at 1 1/4 miles, and his pedigree [by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Ghostzapper out of a mare sired by Breeders’ Cup Classic and Belmont Stakes hero A.P. Indy] is ideal for distance racing. He comes in off a career-best performance in his season debut, a six-length runaway in the Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park.
“We didn’t rush him last year and just let him mature,” Stidham said. “He really trained great over the winter, and I think letting him develop has put us in the spot we’re in right now. He’s doing really well. He had a good five-eighths work since the Razorback, and I just hope he ships well. We’re going to give it a go.”
Post time for the Dubai World Cup is 8:50 p.m. local time (12:50 p.m. EDT). Post time for the $5 million Dubai Sheema is 8:10 p.m. local (12:10 p.m. EDT).
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.