Plenty of people from the UK still apparently enjoy the experience of Dubai in late March, writes Tony Stafford. A number of my friends and acquaintances, most barely recovered from the bruising four days at Cheltenham – they might baulk at five – were off again for another cash-devouring few days in the Gulf.
They are the same grouping who also find time to contribute to the well-being of the people that own Las Vegas hotels. I always fancied a few days there, but no doubt the funds would immediately run out at the tables and I would need to try to fiddle a replacement flight home without penalty.
The nearest in my lifetime of a similar jaunt was when a school friend, Harry Hillier, a genius who, when he sat his masters’ degree, the rubric asked him to answer at least two of the ten questions on the paper. As the remaining students on his course canvassed each other and revealed they had managed maybe two or three, when they asked Harry, he answered: “Well I did them all, but I wasn’t happy about a couple of them.”
A clever chap, then, but not, as he always conceded, as good as me in our teens at digging out winners. Be it on the horses or on our almost nightly forays to Clapton and other favourites of the many dog tracks in London – more than 20 at the time, I usually had final say on our corporate wagers. He became a university lecturer in econometrics (I’ve still no idea what that is!): at around that time I became Chief Reporter on the Greyhound Express.
My parents – with me – had often holidayed in Ostend, my dad loving the fact the races there in those days went on five days a week and you could walk there from the hotel. Before Harry went off to university and I started my first job, we decided to go there and got cheap flights from Southend Airport.
We had five nights arranged at the sub-budget hotel, but went skint after the first two days, and had to leave, managing to get a replacement flight. I’ve never been back in the intervening almost 60 years and suddenly have the urge to do so. Vegas, Dubai and even Cheltenham, you can keep them. I heard reports of extortionate prices at Cheltenham – someone said £14 for a gin and tonic? – the track obviously trying to get back the losses from 2021. I doubt it was any better value in Meydan.
In most years over the past two decades, all the invading hordes of UK punters needed to wrest back some of that cash at Meydan was to follow the overwhelming power of the home team. Surely Charlie Appleby, champion trainer in the UK for the first time in 2021, would provide them with the requisite winners as usual.
But for once the royal blue of Godolphin did not pass the post in front even once in the seven championship races. The die was soon cast by Charlie and William Buick’s two bankers: Manobo in the two-mile Gold Cup, a 9-4 on flop, was followed 40 minutes later when Man Of Promise, 10-11 in the Al Quoz Sprint, could do no better than third to a couple of Irish and UK challengers.
Ado McGuinness’s 14-1 shot A Case Of You under Ronan Whelan, got the better of the Richard Hannon-trained Happy Promise (20-1). Two more Appleby runners, the Frankie Dettori-partnered Naval Crown who finished fourth, and the team’s second string and race second favourite, Creative Force, who finished 14th of 16 completed their unsuccesful challenge.
Once again on the world stage, the Japanese were out in force, their Stay Foolish, ridden by Christophe Lemaire, outstaying the perceived as unbeatable Manobo, to follow up trainer Yoshito Yahagi’s 66/1 shocker Bathrat Leon in the opening Group 2 Mile.
Manobo, who had so entranced the Racing TV experts when winning his trial for the big race recently, probably still has plenty to offer when returning to Newmarket this summer, but his defeat must have been a severe shock for Sheikh Mohammed as well as his trainer and jockey.
The best performance, Manobo apart, from an Appleby runner was Yibir’s second place behind another Japanese, Shahryar in the Sheema Classic over a mile and a half on the turf track. Christian Demuro had the mount here and the 13/2 shot bravely held off Yibir’s challenge.
Fourth, with Dettori in the saddle deputising for injured regular rider Martin Dwyer, was the William Muir and Chris Grassick runner Pyledriver, beaten a length having looked booked for second 100 yards from home when Yibir started his late rally.
Having won his last three 2021 starts in the Great Voltigeur at York, an Invitation race at Belmont Park and finally the Breeders’ Cup Turf, this was an excellent comeback run by Yibir, but with no feasible representative in a World Cup which was left to the devices of the Americans, the home team’s uncharacteristic blank would have been a severe blow.
Having won the Sprint it was Japan’s turn again two races later, when the 12-1 shot Crown Pride collected the UAE Derby, a Group 2 race over one mile one furlong for three-year-olds on the dirt, under Australian jockey Damian Lane. Saeed Bin Suroor, who had plenty of runners on a card he had often dominated in the days before Charlie’s pre-eminence within the team, saddled the third placed Island Falcon at 33-1.
The unexpected happening in that race was the performance of Bob Baffert’s Pinehurst, returning with another long journey to the Middle East from California following his triumph four weeks earlier in the Saudi Derby over a mile in Riyadh. Starting 7-4 favourite that day, he battled well to land the massive prize.
Here he was a 4-1 joint favourite for a big-money follow up, but obviously went wrong, trailing the field home as a tailed-off last of 16. Baffert, though, would enjoy the last laugh at the meeting, but first let’s deal with a fourth Japanese success.
Their horses were to the fore at the Breeders’ Cup and in Saudi Arabia and, in between the triumphs of Bathrat Leon, Stay Foolish, Crown Pride and Shahryar, front-running Panthalassa (8/1) had to share the honours in the Dubai Turf. He was joined on the line in the one mile, one furlong contest by the Gosdens’ money-spinner Lord North (100-30).
Yet another Japanese, 28-1 shot Vin Du Garde, finished fastest of all a nose behind the dead-heaters. Two more UK runners, multiple Group 1-winning filly Saffron Beach (Jane Chapple-Hyam) and William Knight’s Sir Busker were respectively fourth and fifth, picking up plenty of place money. In Sir Busker’s case, the $150,000 greatly exceeded what he would have earned had he carried out his alternative role and run in and won Saturday’s Lincoln Handicap on the opening day of the 2022 turf season.
Baffert’s day in the sun arrived courtesy of Country Grammer. Having been caught late on by 50-1 home-trained Emblem Road in the Saudi Cup last month, he became the underdog defeating the hitherto regarded as best in the world dirt runner in the mile and a quarter Dubai World Cup.
Life Is Good had won five of his six races before Saturday and the Todd Pledger representative started the 8/13 favourite but ended only fourth, his stamina patently failing him on this first attempt at beyond nine furlongs. Now Country Grammer has total earnings of more than £8 million, but still trails a good way behind Mishriff (£11million-plus) who finished last in the Saudi race he won 12 months earlier.
Back home, everyone and especially the bookmakers, expected William Haggas to collect another Lincoln Handicap with the front two in the betting and another lively outsider to represent him. The third string Irish Admiral, at 22/1, was fourth to the Mick Channon-trained 28-1 shot Johan, who won nicely, with 3/1 favourite Mujtaba only 12th and heavily-backed Ametist finishing last of the 22 runners.
Ironically, Johan had been in the Haggas stable until last autumn when owner-breeders Jon and Julia Aisbitt decided a change of scenery was in order. Channon traditionally has his team in trim for the start of the season even though son Harry declared after the win: “It’s colder at West Ilsley than up here!” Imagine what Mick will do when they come in their coats!