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Animal Kingdom will aim to become the first American horse to win the Dubai World Cup since Well Armed in 2009 on Saturday.
Animal Kingdom will aim to become the first American horse to win the Dubai World Cup since Well Armed in 2009 on Saturday.
Little Mike is is one of America’s best performers on turf. Joe Klamar / AFP
Little Mike is is one of America’s best performers on turf. Joe Klamar / AFP
Private Zone runs in the Dubai Dolden Shaheen and will be among of the strong American horses on Saturday. Jake Badger for The National
Private Zone runs in the Dubai Dolden Shaheen and will be among of the strong American horses on Saturday. Jake Badger for The National

Dubai World Cup: American horses still lag behind on Meydan surface

Only one has seen success on the Dubai course's synthetic racing surface, but American horses such as Dullahan and Animal Kingdom are making the transition, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

America has long been an insular sporting nation but in the world of horse racing the US has been a staunch supporter of the Dubai World Cup meeting ever since Cigar won the inaugural race in 1996.

This year once again the Americans have travelled east to come to Dubai, boasting 11 runners across Saturday's eight-race thoroughbred card at Meydan Racecourse.

And yet they have arrived in the knowledge that despite fielding one of their strongest teams, the fact remains that since Meydan Racecourse opened in 2010 they have had only one success from 25 runners.

With such a terrible record, it is a credit to their horsemen that they have doubled their efforts this year.

Two seasons ago the US experienced its first whitewash at the World Cup, and from a team of 11 runners. It appeared to knock American confidence to such an extent that just six US challengers turned up last season.

Of those Royal Delta finished closest to the front, a full eight-and-three-quarter lengths behind Monterosso in the feature race.

As the Americans might say, what gives?

It is clear that the switch from dirt at Nad Al Sheba to a Tapeta surface has had the greatest impact on American fortunes. Cigar triggered a huge interest in the World Cup and since his triumph America scooped the biggest prize in international racing seven times at the old course.

America was the only country to provide winners in direct competition to Godolphin's hegemony.

Dirt is America's surface and at an elite level no matter how good the horse is if there is a slight dip in performance it is enough to let through a synthetic specialist or turf performer who can make the transition more easily.

It is no surprise that the only victory America has experienced at Meydan came from a horse that had been tested on Tapeta before.

Kinsale King won the 2010 Palos Verdes at Santa Anita on Pro-Ride, also a synthetic surface, before he took the Dubai Golden Shaheen two months later. As a confirmed synthetic specialist, trainer Carl O'Callaghan gave his horse a sighter of the surface by travelling twice before shipping to Golden Gate Fields in California, where the course had installed Tapeta.

It is hardly rocket science, as Callaghan concedes.

"Sure I look really smart now doing what I did, but what was most important was that I knew he'd handle the surface. It removed just one of the many pieces of the puzzle," he said from America on Monday. "I get on the horse every day and I said to the owner if he liked it we would go to Dubai. As soon as we set foot on the track at Golden Gate I knew."

American trainers appear to have learnt their lesson and they have brought with them horses better suited to the challenge this year. Animal Kingdom, who has a leading chance in the World Cup, trains on a Tapeta surface at Graham Motion's Fair Hill base in Maryland.

Dullahan, who joins the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner in the World Cup, has won each of his three Grade 1s on a synthetic surface. Dullahan, who will be ridden by Gary Stevens, also has an obvious chance despite disappointing in the concluding round of the Al Maktoum Challenge on Super Saturday on his first start on Tapeta.

When Dullahan's trainer Dale Romans won the World Cup in 2005 with Roses In May, he did not give the horse a prep run in Dubai.

Curlin helped change American perceptions in 2008 when he prepped at Nad Al Sheba before winning the world's most valuable race. It was a tactic tried by Steve Asmussen last season when he sent over Regally Ready, the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner, with the intention of using the Meydan Sprint to warm up for the Al Quoz Sprint. Regally Ready was tailed off in both races.

"Americans have always come here late but I think this is a surface you want to have been over a few times. I think the prep we had will give us an advantage," Romans said at morning trackwork on Tuesday.

"My horse loves synthetic. The prep was not picture perfect as he reared in the gate when they left and he got left behind. The way he is training right now though he is going to be a tough horse to beat.

"I wouldn't come halfway across the world if I didn't think we were going to win."

There may be more subtle differences, however, that all add up to drag down American performances.

For instance, most American horses are stabled on the racecourse. It makes for a busy day-to-day existence, which is in total contrast to the universally acknowledged five-star service they receive in international stables or World Cup quarantine at Meydan.

Meydan is far from perfect, however. Where in America the horses can simply leave their barn and are out on the track in minutes, at Meydan they must walk a long way to access the racecourse. It is a familiar lament among grooms, and one that was spelled out by Antonio Romero, the groom for Dubai Golden Shaheen challenger Private Zone.

"With the walk all the way to the barn to the track plus the gallop, it's like he went two miles," Romero said.

With US$27.25 million on offer on World Cup night, racing in Dubai will always lure American horsemen.

Yet alongside Kinsale King's success only California Flag (third in the Al Quoz Sprint in 2010) and Euroears (second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2011) have made the podium at Meydan. It is a record that needs improving but the Americans may have just brought the horses to do so on Saturday.

sports@thenational.ae

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