Call it little more than coincidence, but the two biggest events in horse racing this weekend are both in the 25th latitude north, almost 8,000 miles apart.
First up at the Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emirates is a day of racing collectively called the Dubai World Cup, nine races worth $1 million or more, culminating with the $10-million Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world where the participants do not put up most of the purse money.
Then, a few hours later at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., the $1-million Florida Derby gets underway. Three of the last five Kentucky Derby winners emerged from that race.
Seven horses in Dubai have Southern California-based trainers, while the Florida Derby is mostly about deciding which is the best horse from the East Coast that could be headed to Louisville, Ky.
Peter Miller has four horses in Dubai running in two sprint races. Doug O’Neill has a horse in the World Cup. But as usual, trainer Bob Baffert is on center stage. He has won the big race three times (Silver Charm, 1998; Captain Steve, 2000; Arrogate, 2017) and has two horses in Saturday’s World Cup.
The best of those horses is Eclipse Award-winner West Coast, which last finished second to Gun Runner in the $16-million Pegasus World Cup, a race in which entrants put up most of the money. Gun Runner has retired, ostensibly leaving West Coast as the best older horse.
“He’s a big, strong horse,” Baffert told reporters in Dubai. “He’s tough. When you saddle him, he’ll push you around a little. He’s got a good mind as he doesn’t get too hot.
“He’s always been under the shadow of Arrogate and other good horses. But now’s his chance to be Steve Young to Joe Montana. Now’s his chance to be the first-string quarterback. Hopefully, this is his coming-out party.”
West Coast is the odds-on favorite with European bookmakers. Gambling is illegal in the United Arab Emirates.
Baffert also has Mubtaahij, which finished second in the Santa Anita Handicap.
“Mubtaahij needs to step it up,” Baffert said. “In his prime, he ran second here . He’s run some really big races. He came off a nice race at Santa Anita, and he’s got a good post [five]. He needs to jump and get a nice early position.”
While Mubtaahij needs to get out of the gate fast, Baffert is less concerned with West Coast, which drew the nine in the 10-horse field in the 1 1/4-mile race.
“Everybody talks about the outside post and it’s a short run — 200 yards — [to the first turn],” Baffert said. “Everybody rushes out hard, so on the outside, if you break slow, you’ll be in the clear. [West Coast] can sit off the pace. He doesn’t need the lead.”
Gulfstream also is considered a track with a short run to the first turn in 1 1/8-mile races. However, the Florida Derby has a field of nine, which should mitigate a lot of the concern.
The favorite at 9-5 is Audible, which easily won the Holy Bull Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths. Todd Pletcher is the trainer and John Velazquez the jockey, the same combination that won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby last year with Always Dreaming.
The second favorite is Promises Fulfilled for trainer Dale Romans, who along with Baffert and Pletcher could have multiple entrants in the Kentucky Derby. Promises Fulfilled, at 18-1, was the surprise winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths.
“He just does whatever you want him to do and he’s just a horse in the barn,” Romans said, “which means that there are no issues. He goes out there and takes care of business. He actually should be undefeated [in four starts].”
The horse finished third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where Romans said the colt fought jockey Robby Albarado throughout the race.
“I have never seen a horse with that much energy fighting his rider … finish up as well as he did,” Romans said.
The Kentucky Derby picture will clear up in the next few weeks, with the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes next Saturday and the Arkansas Derby the week after.
“There is a bunch of goings-on out there,” Romans said. “I think we all like McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro. Both of them are fine horses [and will run in the Santa Anita Derby]. Those two Californians were good. Magnum Moon [Arkansas Derby] is a good horse.
“But I haven’t seen one who I thought dominates the crop yet. The great thing about the Kentucky Derby is it takes all the regions that are out there and … they come together at the Derby. That’s what makes the Derby so special: It’s the first time they will all come together.”
But until then, the weeding-out process that started with 370 nominated horses, will keep cutting until it’s down to 20.