`Landing' is long way from Laurel

Godolphin tutelage leads to Blue Grass

April 09, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The phone call came July 31 last year, the morning after Prado's Landing won his first race at Laurel Park.

Arnold Heft, the Chevy Chase resident who owned the colt, recalls the stranger from Kentucky offering $175,000 for the lightly raced 2-year-old. Heft thought that was mighty generous.

The year before, he had bought Prado's Landing for a mere $25,000. And just a few months before the offer of $175,000, he had tried to sell the colt at auction but wound up buying him back because no one else thought he was worth more than $65,000.

So Heft figured, that fine July morning, that he had a live one on the line. A retired builder and part-owner of the MCI Center and its teams, the Wizards and Capitals, Heft talked the man up to "a little less than $250,000."

A few days later, Prado's Landing boarded a van for the trip out of Maryland and into the secretive world of Godolphin Racing and the Maktoum family of Dubai.

Tomorrow, Prado's Landing will step into the public spotlight when he takes on seven of this country's best 3-year-olds in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. As a national television audience catches its first glimpse of a Godolphin contender for the Kentucky Derby, Heft will be glued to his TV like a father watching his son.

"I feel like he's my own," the 79-year-old Heft said of Prado's Landing. "I hope and pray he does well. Then I can feel part of it."

After yesterday's post-position draw, Mike Battaglia, the track oddsmaker, declared Prado's Landing the race's long shot at 30-1. He said he would have made him 99-1 if anyone besides Godolphin owned him.

That reflects the respect -- and ambiguity -- Americans hold for the international racing operation headed by Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum, the defense minister and crown prince of Dubai of the United Arab Emirates. Since starting to train horses in the desert in 1994, Godolphin has won many of the world's great races -- but not the Kentucky Derby.

"You saw what happened in the World Cup," said jockey Gary Stevens, referring to Godolphin's recent triumph in the $5 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race.

"I don't think I need to say anything else. They can do amazing things. They shouldn't be taken lightly."

Stevens rode Prado's Landing on March 21 at Dubai's Nad Al Sheba Racecourse in what Godolphin officials called a "trial race" of their 3-year-old candidates for the Kentucky Derby.

Although no official chart of the 1 1/8-mile race exists, observers said Prado's Landing finished third, about nine lengths behind Worldly Manner, Godolphin's No. 1 Derby contender.

"I think he's going to improve," Stevens said of Prado's Landing. "He was very impressive in the trial. He closed a lot of ground."

Because Stevens will ride Ecton Park tomorrow in the Arkansas Derby, Chris McCarron will ride Prado's Landing. This will be the colt's first official race since July 30, when he won a 5 1/2-furlong sprint at Laurel Park. He had raced twice before at Laurel, finishing third and fourth.

Asked whether he normally would fly from California to ride a horse in the Blue Grass whose last race was a 5 1/2-furlong maiden win in Maryland, McCarron said: "No, I wouldn't. But if you've been to Dubai and seen their facility and how they train their horses, you have to be impressed. And you would say, `You know what? This task can be accomplished. This challenge is doable."

Also, McCarron freely acknowledged that he agreed to ride Prado's Landing hoping he might be asked to ride Worldly Manner or Aljabr in the Kentucky Derby.

Worldly Manner and Aljabr ran one-two in the March trial race. Yesterday, Aljabr narrowly won Godolphin's second and final trial. Worldly Manner didn't compete. Godolphin officials have pronounced him fit for the Derby.

Godolphin bought Worldly Manner for a reported $5 million after his overpowering, five-length victory last September in the Del Mar Futurity. Bob Baffert had trained him.

And Godolphin bought Come- onmom for a reported $3 million after he won the Remsen Stakes last November at Aqueduct. Aljabr is a sheik home-bred. Three-for-three last year in Europe, he was bred by Sheik Mohammed's brother, Dubai's minister of finance.

What Godolphin paid for Prado's Landing is not clear, because the man who called Arnold Heft last July said yesterday that he was not representing Godolphin.

Mark A. Wampler, a Kentuckian who buys and sells horses, said he was "not at liberty to say" for whom he bought Prado's Landing. But that party, apparently, resold the horse to the sheiks.

Jerry Robb, who trained the colt for Heft at Laurel Park, said he didn't know where Prado's Landing ended up until reporters from England called him a couple of months ago trying to track the horse's past.

Robb said Prado's Landing was starting to develop into a nice horse when he had to let him go. Now that he's coming back for the Grade I Blue Grass after not racing officially for 8 1/2 months, what does Robb think?

"It sounds crazy," Robb said. "If he's not a superior horse, they might ruin him asking him to go that far against those kind of horses."

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