For a race in the middle of the Arabian desert, the Dubai World Cup (GI) has always managed to draw fairly full fields of the world’s top handicap stars. And this year is no different, as 10 are set to race under the lights of Meydan Racecourse for the winner’s share of the $10 million purse. What’s different this year is that the runner to beat is actually the 6-year-old mare Forever Unbridled, who is making her first start against the boys and the first since her dominant win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI).
It’s been typically hot in Dubai all week with the daytime temperatures reaching into the upper 90s, but nights have been cooler and it’s a good bet that by the time the field breaks from the gate at post time, which is set for 12:50 p.m. ET, temperatures will have dipped to a more comfortable level of low to mid-80s.
Much has been made recently about trainer Dallas Stewart’s experience with some female legends of the turf, like Winning Colors and Lady’s secret while serving as assistant for Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, being his reference for knowing a good mare like Forever Unbridled. All true. I mean, we, as fans and handicappers, all know good mares and have been fortunate to see them run, but Stewart has had the privilege of guiding Forever Unbridled’s career and bringing her to the level where she’s wearing the target on her back in the world’s second-richest race.
Chuck Fipke’s homebred daughter of Unbridled’s Song had a perfect year in 2017 and although she only had three starts, she was named the country’s top distaffer with an Eclipse Award. Her Breeders’ Cup Race was by far her best performance and she beat a solid bunch of horses, which included a few Grade 1 winners, fellow champions and millionaires. She’s been the definition of consistent, only finishing worse than third twice in 17 career starts (eight wins) and has almost always posted big speed figures, even in defeat. This is her first start at this distance, but she’s been successful at nine furlongs and is certainly bred to handle the 10 furlongs. She’s does her best runner in the later stages of the race and will get the pace she likes to run at, and will have the benefit of Mike Smith in the irons for the first time, though mostly a lateral move from Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who elected to stay in the United States to ride Audible in the Florida Derby (GI). She’s been training exceptionally well all year after a brief winter freshening, has looked great out on the Meydan track since arriving nearly two weeks ago and, with her best, may become the first female to actually win the Dubai World Cup.
She’s scheduled to retire after this race and has a tentative date with Medaglia D’Oro in the coming weeks, though Fipke did say a win could extend her racing career another year. Hard to imagine anyone objecting to that plan, should it materialize.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will saddle Gary and Mary West’s West Coast in search of his fourth Dubai World Cup victory and second in a row after watching his charge Arrogate triumph in dramatic fashion a year ago. The California-based conditioner is the most successful American-based trainer in this race as the only one to win more than one, so prepping one is in his wheelhouse and he’s not one to send any horse — let alone two — halfway around the world if he didn’t believe there was a solid shot for victory.
West Coast, though last year’s champion 3-year-old and Travers Stakes (GI) winner, hasn’t won since last year’s Pennsylvania Derby (GI), but has put up some decent performances, including a third and a second behind Horse of the Year Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and Pegasus World Cup in his last two starts, respectively. The son of Flatter has never finished worse than third in ten career starts and figures to continue to at least continue that trend her with his best, and he’s already a winner at this distance. Big speed, pace and class figures are his norm, too, and he’s been working and training impressively since his last race. With regular rider Mike Smith aboard the mare here, Joel Rosario gladly accepts the call and while not a Hall of Famer yet, is surely having a Hall of Fame career so far and is a very talented rider. West Coast is a stalker with speed in front of him, so expect Rosario to hustle toward the lead from post position nine and sit just off the early pace before launching his best run in the lane.
Godolphin’s Breeders’ Cup Turf (GI) hero and fan favorite Talismanic is this year’s “house horse” with the best shot to win from the local contingent off a score in the Prix Darshaan over the synthetic at Chantilly. The fact that he’s a turf horse racing on the dirt for the first time is a concern, but the handsome white-faced, white-legged son of Medaglia D’Oro has a decent dirt pedigree and is in amazing hands under the care of champion trainer Andre Fabre. He’s a mid-pack type runner generally, but can be placed up close to a slower pace or farther back off the heat. He’s well-known for his determined stretch run and will need that punch down the lane to win this race. He likes the longer distance, so the 10 furlongs won’t be an issue, and he’s well-traveled recently — plus, he reunites with jockey Mickael Barzelona. He’s another who has looked dazzling training at Meydan over the past few days.
Last year’s UAE Derby (GII) winner Thunder Snow, best known in America for his impression of a bucking bronco shortly after the break of the Kentucky Derby (GI), has had a pretty solid career since that performance, winning a Group 1 and placing in a couple others. He won the second round of the Al-Maktoum Challenge (GII) at the Preakness Stakes (GI) distance of 1 3/16 miles and has already won three of five starts here in Dubai, with two seconds. Distance and surface aren’t a question, just whether he has the talent to be competitive against the top choices here.
Mubtaahij, who has a nice record of 10-4-3-0 here in Dubai and returns “home” after spending more than half a year in the care of Bob Baffert in California. He was second here two years ago behind California Chrome and fourth behind Arrogate last year, and also won the 2015 UAE Derby. Last year’s Awesome Again Stakes (GI) winner gets the services of Triple Crown winner for the first time and while it seems like he’s in tough, he’s surprised before at decent odds. Let’s face it, he likes Dubai and this distance and is always a good horse in the mornings.
The Satish Seemar-trained North America won the third round of the Maktoum Challenge at this distance three weeks ago and certainly likes Meydan, with five wins from eight starts here. It’s hard to say where he fits here, as he’s not really faced this level of competition, but he does have a lot of positives and is probably a must-use on any exotic ticket.
Smarty Jones Stakes (GIII) winner Pavel hails from the Doug O’Neill barn in California and, while consistent, he hasn’t been able to rise to the level of the best here. He is strong enough, though, to compete for a share of the purse.
Last year’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) winner Gunnevera hasn’t won a race in seven months and while his fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and third in the Pegasus World Cup are nice, he’s just always kind of been a bit below the best in this division. The fact he’s been battling a sore foot they’ve been soaking and treating all week doesn’t inspire much confidence, unfortunately.
Awardee and Furia Cruzada seem a bit overmatched.