Steve Moran

Vexed question of Russian horse among internationals at ever-expanding Middle East racing carnivals

There is a very good, if not freakishly good, horse who is likely to start among the favourites for the UAE Derby at the Dubai World Cup meeting this coming Saturday night. It’s Russian.

Well, in fact and perhaps ironically, it’s an American horse who was sold for US$65,000 at Keeneland from the Gainesway Farm draft. However, it is Russian-owned and trained and its first start was in Moscow. 

The horse is Azure Coast (Street Sense) who has won twice at Meydan this season after debuting with a six-length win in Moscow last September. The latest was a stunning last to first success in the Group 3 UAE Guineas for trainer Pavel Vashchenko and owner Vladimir Kazakov. 

He should not, of course, yet be mentioned in the same breath as the incomparable Zenyatta but his dirt track racing style – a withering finish after tardy getaways – is certainly reminiscent of the amazing mare who won 19 of 20 starts.

The form behind him, admittedly, did not take a positive turn when the Guineas runner-up Kiefer was subsequently well held behind the USA’s Pinehurst in the Saudi Derby and that horse is likely to start THE favourite in the UAE Derby. 

However, the Guineas third Quality Boone did then impressively win the Listed Al Bastakiya and it’s more been the manner of Azure Coast’s wins rather than what he’s beaten. 

The question now, for many, will be whether he should be allowed to continue to compete on the world stage given that so many sporting bodies have now banned or ostracised Russian sports figures and bodies in wake of the invasion of Ukraine? I’m sure his connections would argue he is representing them, not Russia but….

It’s unlikely the Emirates Racing Authority would step in given the UAE’s ties to Russia and, in fairness, racing bodies all over the world don’t have a great record when it comes to taking any stand on such issues. While there was some outcry, we did not prevent the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose troops are now reported to be part of the assault on Ukraine, from running his horse Mourilyan in the 2009 Melbourne Cup (it finished third to collect $420,000). 

Russia is a member of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) but that body has made no comment. 

Azure Coast’s performances have been one of the international highlights of the ever expanding early year Middle East racing carnival with Saudi Arabia joining Dubai in offering life changing prize-money while Bahrain is also getting in on the act. 

The Saudi and Dubai meetings this year have not only attracted, as expected, quality horses from the USA, England, Ireland, Japan and France but also from South America, Scandinavia, Turkey, Russia and Australia. Dubai’s Super Saturday had 34 overseas runners from 12 different countries.

If the region’s major racing continues to expand it will certainly have a negative impact, you’d think, on the depth of the early flat season races in the UK while it remains to be seen as to whether it proves a positive or negative for Hong Kong’s flagship Champions Day which, alas, this year will be without international competitors given the complications brought by further Covid-19 outbreaks. 

Notable among the visitors have been those from Uruguay from where the Argentine bred champion Invasor emerged in 2006 to win five successive Group 1 races in the USA, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic before taking the 2007 Dubai World Cup. 

The aforementioned three-year-olds Kiefer (BRZ) and Quality Boone (ARG) came from Uruguay along with the Group 1 Gran Premio Latinamericano winner Aero Trem (BRZ)  who performed admirably to finish fifth in the Saudi Cup and who just might out-run his odds in the Dubai World Cup. 

Irwin (ARG), the nine-length winner of the Group 1 Gran Premio Nacionale in Argentina, is another who certainly adds some intrigue to the Derby. Burgas, from Turkey, and Saudi Arabia’s Great Scot are two other fascinating international entrants who can be competitive in what is the most cosmopolitan of race meetings.

Aside from these curious runners from around the globe, the world’s biggest training names – from Gosden, Appleby and Haggas to Fabre, Asmussen, Pletcher, Mott, O’Brien (Joseph), Mori and Yahagi are represented; not to mention the very much under pressure Bob Baffert who prepares Pinehurst and World Cup contender Country Grammer. 

Country Grammer is one of four rides for Frankie Dettori but – speaking of curious – he’s aboard not one for Saeed bin Suroor, including horses he’s ridden of late – most notably Storm Damage who will take some beating in the Godolphin Mile despite the switch from turf to dirt. 

Australia will have a direct link with at least one runner with the Australian Bloodstock part-owned Rodrigo Diaz contesting the Gold Cup at 3200 metres while Damian Lane has two rides – Crown Pride and Uberleben – for Japanese connections. 

The world’s highest rated horse Life Is Good, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Irad Ortiz junior, will unsurprisingly start a hot favourite in the World Cup. He’ll truck right on the speed, along with second favourite Hot Rod Charlie, and that’s usually the recipe for winning the World Cup.

However it is worth noting that four of the past ten winners – Arrogate, Prince Bishop, Monterosso and Victoire Pisa – did come from the back. Not to mention the amazing Red Cadeaux finishing on to run second to Animal Kingdom in 2013 – another grand finishing second moment (along with three Melbourne Cup) in his £4,998,408 earning resume despite winning only one Group 1 race.

It’s some night looming with the wildcards and the well established winners. 

For the record, and with the disclaimer that these prognostications were done pre-barrier draw, I fancy Storm Damage and Great Scot in the Godolphin Mile; Manobo should win the Gold Cup with only Stay Foolish and Baron Samedi to threaten; Man Of Promise is top pick in the Al Quoz but Casa Creed, Creative Force, Get Smokin and Happy Romance have chances; Pinehurst might stave off a battalion of Japanese rivals plus Irwin and Azure Coast in the Derby but it’s not clear cut; Schnell Meister is the rightful Dubai Turf favourite from Lord North with Colonel Lam and Sir Busker the best roughies; Yibir seeks to remain unbeaten on good ground since being gelded in the Sheema Classic but the Japanese trio Authority, Shahryar and Stella Veloce are strong; Life Is Good from Hot Rod Charlie is the obvious in the World Cup but I will have a couple of dollars on the Uruguayan Aero Trem at ridiculous odds.