`Dubai' counted on for big return

Road to Derby long one

odds against Irish pair

April 27, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Of the expected full field of 20 in the Kentucky Derby next Saturday at Churchill Downs, three of the horses will have traveled across the Atlantic - one from Dubai in the Middle East and two from Ireland.

The one who has traveled the farthest will probably have the best chance.

Essence of Dubai, a son of Pulpit purchased for $2.3 million as a yearling, has won both of his races this year at Nad Al Sheba Race Course in Dubai. Owned by Godolphin Racing, Essence of Dubai is the only Derby contender who has raced on dirt at 1 1/4 miles, the Derby distance.

The striking colt won the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby on March 23 on the Dubai World Cup undercard. This will be the fourth straight year the sheiks who compose Godolphin Racing have tried to win the Kentucky Derby.

"We think Essense of Dubai is better than what we've brought before," says Saeed bin Suroor, Godolphin's trainer. "I think we have a good chance this year. I think a mile and a quarter will suit him."

Godolphin sent its young colt to Churchill a week ago, ensuring two weeks of acclimation. By contrast, the two Irish entrants - Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo - won't arrive in the United States until Tuesday.

Because there is no quarantine barn at Churchill Downs, they will spend two days at Keeneland. Their trainer, Aidan O'Brien, may not bring them to Churchill until the morning of the race.

What's more, both horses have raced only once this year, and Johannesburg's Derby prep was a seven-furlong stakes on the turf. He finished second. That was his first loss after winning all seven races at 2, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park.

Michael Tabor, who owns Johannesburg, acknowledges that his $200,000 yearling will enter the Derby starting gate with less than ideal preparation. Tabor's Thunder Gulch, based in America, won the Derby in 1995.

That "whetted my appetite," Tabor says, also acknowledging that his Hennessy colt may be bred for races shorter than the Kentucky Derby.

"Obviously, it is the big question mark," says the Englishman. "But I suppose the pedigree experts, if they were correct all the time, it wouldn't be a game."

Tabor could have kept Johannesburg home and run him in the English 2000 Guineas.

"We have other horses for the English 2000 Guineas," Tabor says. "There is only one Kentucky Derby."

Johannesburg became Europe's darling last year, winning stakes in England, Ireland and France. O'Brien, his trainer, has never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby.

"It's a learning curve," Tabor says. "You've got to start somewhere. I hope that this will be the first of many years that we will have runners."

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