South Africa's 2011 Horse of the Year returns to the track for the first time in over a year in the Balanchine at Meydan Racecourse, a race her trainer has won a record five times, writes Geoffrey Riddle.
Mike de Kock's horse Igugu 'a gutsy, courageous filly'
This is not the first time Igugu has scared off the opposition. South Africa's 2011 Horse of the Year faces only six rivals in the Group 2 Balanchine at Meydan Racecourse tomorrow.
The 1,800m contest was reopened on Monday only for Godolphin to swell their challenge yesterday by handing Prussian her UAE debut alongside the Royal Blue runners Sajjhaa, Dark Orchid and Spellwork.
Despite the generous purse of US$200,000 (Dh734,000), which pays out $4,000 to sixth place, there are few owners and trainers in the land willing to risk a run to take her on.
It says much for Igugu's huge reputation, which 12 months ago was such that only six were declared for South Africa's Grade 1 Paddock Stakes alongside her.
Igugu happened to miss the race because of a respiratory tract infection but three weeks later she put that all behind her by defying stringent quarantine conditions to win the J&B Met, one of South Africa's most prestigious Grade 1 races. The six year old has not raced since.
Mike de Kock, her trainer, has put her through a long period of slow work to keep her fitness at a decent level in the interim.
Like 13 of her stablemates she endured 21 days of quarantine after the J&B Met, added to 90 days on the island of Mauritius and 30 days in England were she picked up a splint.
Since she arrived in Dubai on November 7, however, things have gone more smoothly and De Kock is hopeful she can justify her lofty reputation under Christophe Soumillon tomorrow night.
"It is a matter of whether we will get her back to her best after a year off," De Kock told The National. "She is a filly and a when a filly goes off on you, you can do what you like but you can't get them back.
"She is a gutsy filly and a courageous filly and I hope she returns to the form she is capable of as she is world class and can win on the world stage."
De Kock would know. The South African handler has won the Balanchine, which was only introduced into the UAE programme in 2004, a record five times.
Last year he scooped the prize with Mahbooba, who like Igugu is an Australian-bred daughter of Galileo, the dual Derby winner.
In 2008, Sun Classique added the Dubai Sheema Classic to her win in the Balanchine, while in 2011 River Jetez, a previous J&B Met winner, tacked on the Dubai Duty Free to her Balanchine success. Moon Dazzle in 2005 and Irridescence in 2006 were his other winners.
De Kock mentioned at the beginning of the Dubai World Cup Carnival that the Dubai World Cup itself might be a target but it seems that the more well-worn path of former stablemates seems to be the favoured option.
If Igugu shows up well tomorrow, De Kock intends to run Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa's prized asset in the Jebel Hatta, a turf race over 1,800m on Super Saturday in just under three weeks before deciding between the Duty Free or the Sheema.
"I'm very happy with her. My view is for her to improve through the Carnival and to peak on World Cup night," De Kock said.
"She is versatile in trip but we will see if she still has got that zip and feel for the trip and for racing.
"She may need further now that she is that bit older but my gut feeling is that she will be competitive."
On her first start for 390 days Igugu is unlikely to set the pulse racing during the race preliminaries. She does not walk well. She often sweats in the parade ring and goes down to the starting gates awkwardly.
Once the gates open, however, it is an entirely different story, resulting in 10 wins from 12 career starts. In those two defeats Igugu finished second.
"She has never been a filly that gives you confidence before a race as she does everything she shouldn't do but I wouldn't change that," De Kock said.
She may not be much to look at, but in terms of official ratings Igugu is one of the classiest fillies to have ever showcased their talents in Dubai. Her rating of 118 puts Sajjhaa's next best of 112 tomorrow night in the shade.
Mahbooba was rated at 113 after her Balanchine win, while Sun Classique was rated similarly at her peak.
When Royal Delta, who warmed up for a repeat bid for next month's World Cup with an easy win in America on Sunday, ran at Meydan last season she was rated 119.
If Igugu does progress through to World Cup night, those two leading ladies will be vying for the spotlight, whatever race the South African challenger runs in.