24 April 2005
Which major venue converts from a home fixture to an away match for its biggest team over the winter? Answer: Newmarket, which is base camp for Sheikh Mohammed’s massive Godolphin operation all summer but can be strange and chilly territory when the likes of 2,000 Guineas favourite Dubawi arrive from Dubai this week.
The winter sunshine operation for the horses who carry the blue Godolphin silks began 11 years ago when State Performer and Balanchine, a colt and a filly bought from Robert Sangster after their two-year-old careers, were flown off to Dubai for close season training and brought back to run fourth and second in the 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas respectively.
When Balanchine then won the Oaks, and Moonshell and Lammtarra followed by taking the 1995 Oaks and Derby, and Mark of Esteem took the 2,000 Guineas in 1996, Godolphin appeared to have re-written the training manual. Complaints that horses were being cherry-picked from established trainers were accepted as an owner’s prerogative. Mutterings that the public would be deprived access proved erroneous since Dubai has now become racing’s No 1 winter holiday destination.
A decade ago there was something of a mass inferiority complex as the equine immigrants would stalk round the Newmarket paddock with the equivalent of a glowing suntan deep in their coats. When Dubawi enters the ring next Saturday there will still be gasps at his condition.But the reason for him being 11-8 favourite is not the shining of his skin, but because of his unbeaten record on the racecourse and that at home he shows himself to be the fastest horse in the strongest stable. If he wins the Guineas, it will be because he is quicker, not fitter.
In fact it is legitimate to argue both statistically and logically that the Dubai winter is actually a disadvantage. Since Mark of Esteem’s victory (by the shortest of margins from horses trained at Newmarket and Middleham) only Island Sands (in 1999) has won the 2,000 Guineas from Godolphin and the unmatched success that they have had over the past few seasons has been based on victories after re-acclimatisation over here.
The reason to select Dubawi is because it is easier and because sentimentalists have long seen it written in the stars. When he won on his debut in June he was the first son of Sheikh Mohammed’s ill-fated favourite Dubai Millennium to hit the track. He continued the good work with a slugging victory at Newmarket followed by an impressive win in Ireland’s National Stakes, but glowing reports from the sunshine are still the main fuel of his fancy.
The fact that the Craven Stakes, the principal Guineas trial, ended in a confused four-way photo finish has given trainers like Michael Stoute (of the second horse, Rob Roy) and John Gosden (of the fourth, Iceman), the excuse to talk down expectations. But don’t kid yourself that they aren’t hopeful.
“I would not swap my horse for anything,” said Iceman’s jockey, Jimmy Fortune last week. “I will have a much better shot next week and our fitness would be every bit as good as anything from Dubai.” Study of the Craven Stakes video confirms Fortune’s verdict.
Much has been made of the promise of the once-raced Rob Roy who will undoubtedly strip much fitter and more mentally organised. But Iceman, with seven runs under his belt, will be the most experienced horse in a field which is likely to be towed along at a much faster pace than the Craven, where Jimmy and the other jockeys spent the first half of the race with their arms being pulled out of their sockets.
The gallop is likely to be set by a handsome, almost black colt called Diktatorial. He did an impressive gallop at Newbury a wek ago and on Tuesday morning was the apple of his trainer Andrew Balding’s eye as he limbered up at Kingsclere. This is only Balding’s third season since taking over from his father Ian, but he has already won a classic with Casual Look and this morning is in Hong Kong aiming to add another £500,000 to the £1.7 million won by Phoenix Reach.
“It’s a big ask,” said Balding. “The horse has only run three times and was mentally very immature last year. But he has a terrific cruising speed and a furlong out in the Guineas I can see him being the one they have to shoot at.” He looks out at the Kingsclere grass after exercise and we try to visualise what the race will look like. It was like this before his father sent Mill Reef to finish second to Brigadier Gerard in the most famous Guineas of them all back in 1971.
I think Dubawi will be the first to tackle Diktatorial. Rob Roy, the O’Brien hope Footstepsinthesand and finally Iceman will come at him. Iceman may make it, but if Dubawi holds him it will because of speed and strength, not just winter sun.