`Manner' brings world of questions to Ky.

Dubai horse Derby's best-kept secret

April 26, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Kentucky Derby week begins with a mystery.

On a clear, crisp morning, a couple of ticks past 6: 30, streaks of orange and pink stain the slate sky above Churchill Downs. All is quiet, but something's stirring.

A dark form with long legs, barrel chest and arched neck emerges from its cave-like home. It glides under lights, ghost-like. A handful of humans stare in silence. They wonder what to make of this form, so fluid, so foreign -- this form from another world.

Yesterday, the mystery horse of Saturday's 125th Kentucky Derby emerged from Stall 3, Barn 45. From halfway around the world, the aptly named Worldly Manner has arrived from Dubai to lead the assault on America's greatest race.

In a transaction last fall as secretive as international negotiations, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, one of the richest men in the world, bought Worldly Manner from his California owners, Betty and John Mabee. Bob Baffert trained the son of Riverman, and trained him successfully until he was sold. As a 2-year-old, Worldly Manner won three of four races, including the Del Mar Futurity, a key West Coast test for juveniles.

"We didn't know who was buying him, but we knew it was somebody with a lot of money," Baffert said. "It was the best-kept secret I've ever seen in horse racing. They were in super-stealth mode, I tell you."

Sheik Mohammed, who with his three brothers operates Godolphin Racing Inc., paid $5 million for Worldly Manner. Then the colt vanished -- into the rich and secretive world of Godolphin. Oddly enough, he ended up in the care of a guy from Brooklyn, N.Y., a former assistant to Bill Mott, the trainer of Cigar.

"The sheiks are very important people, and they like their privacy," said Tom Albertrani, who worked for Mott until Godolphin hired him four years ago as its assistant trainer to Saeed bin Suroor. "I think we all have to respect that. But I can understand the frustration that there are no reports coming out of Dubai."

Sheik Mohammed is defense minister and crown prince of the Persian Gulf kingdom. A renowned horseman and sportsman, he controls Godolphin and decided in 1994 that it should begin training horses in the desert. From its base in the Middle East, Godolphin has won many of the world's top races -- but not the Kentucky Derby.

"Sheik Mohammed loves a challenge," Albertrani said. "Wherever there's a race, he's going to try to bring a good horse and try to win."

To this Kentucky Derby he's brought two. The second is Aljabr, a sheik homebred who won all three of his races last year -- all on grass in Europe.

Neither Aljabr nor Worldly Manner have competed in an official race this year. However, Godolphin held two 1 1/8-mile "trial races" in Dubai, the first in March, in which Worldly Manner and Aljabr ran one-two, and the second in April, which Aljabr won. Declared fit after the first, Worldly Manner did not participate in the second.

But the "trial races" are not included in the horses' past performances. As far as American handicappers are concerned, the pair has not competed since September, and the farthest either has raced is seven furlongs, or seven-eighths of a mile.

The Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles, a supreme challenge even for 3-year-olds who have raced several times this year. The last horse to win the Derby in his first start as a 3-year-old was Morvich in 1922.

While professing respect for Godolphin's operation, American trainers doubt the viability of their Derby strategy.

"To me, it's almost an impossible task, bringing those horses all the way over here," said Baffert, winner of the past two Kentucky Derbies. "It's their hobby. They're not in it to make money. They want to see if they can do it."

Said Nick Zito, winner of two Derbies this decade: "They're doing it their way. But the obstacles are very, very hard to overcome."

That became clear April 10 in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, when Prado's Landing, whom Godolphin bought last year out of Maryland, finished last. And yesterday, Worldly Manner and Aljabr breezed seven furlongs in their final major workout before the Derby.

Their times were slow and hardly competitive: Worldly Manner 1 minute, 29 4/5 seconds, Aljabr 1: 31.

Afterward, Jerry Bailey, who worked and will ride Worldly Manner in the Derby, declined to talk with reporters, saying he had to catch a plane. But Albertrani, the assistant trainer, said the works were good, although he spoke with little enthusiasm.

It seemed the mystery had lost some of its suspense.

Pub Date: 4/26/99

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