Trio of American Invaders Seek Upset
The only filly to win the UAE Derby so far, Khawlah in 2011, sported the Godolphin colors, and Divine Image will be well backed to emulate her in Saturday’s $2.5 million race.
Much has changed in the last eight years. Meydan dug up its Tapeta and installed dirt, Charlie Appleby became a Godolphin trainer, and the Kentucky Derby points system was instituted. That said, Divine Image has elements in common with Khawlah. Both are UAE Oaks winners that came along during Carnivals lacking a standout among the locally-based 3-year-old males.
Unlike Khawlah, Divine Image ran only once at age two, romping in a Chelmsford novice in December. The Appleby pupil did well to recover from a disastrous start to finish second in the UAE 1000 Guineas. She absorbed the lesson to break better in the UAE Oaks, but she still looked a bit green.
Instead of training up to the UAE Derby as Khawlah did after her more emphatic Oaks display, Divine Image wheeled back to face the boys in the Al Bastakiya over this same about 1 3/16-mile trip, and the proverbial light bulb switched on. She dusted a big field, including Superior and Al Bastakiya Trial winner Manguzi.
Divine Image’s 7 1/4-length win prompts the question of whether she can duplicate that on three weeks’ rest in her fourth start of the Carnival.
Khawlah won her UAE Derby by denying Aidan O’Brien’s Master of Hounds in a photo. O’Brien has since won three runnings of the UAE Derby, most recently with last year’s track record-breaker Mendelssohn. He returns with Van Beethoven. Although he's by Scat Daddy, like both Mendelssohn and Divine Image, Van Beethoven doesn’t bring the same sort of resume.
Winless since last summer’s Railway, he’s gone unplaced in four straight. Yet there’s a suspicion that the Triple Crown nominee is a fair bit better than we’ve seen. His even fourth in the March 6 Patton under top weight, the same European Road race that launched Mendelssohn, could bring him on a lot. Less encouraging is his outisidish post 11 in the field of 14.
Another one hopping over from the European Road is Sheikh Hamdan’s Jahbath, who extended his winning streak to four in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Conditions race at Kempton.
The William Haggas trainee steps out from the confines of the British all-weather circuit for a bigger test on the international stage. His immediate pedigree suggests he’ll handle the stretch-out from a mile, but it doesn’t scream dirt. Not an early Triple Crown nominee, Jahbath is engaged in the Derby at Epsom, and it would be no surprise if turf classics have more appeal. Still, he’s well drawn in post 2, and sire Mukhadram led a long way in the 2014 World Cup, when the race was still on Tapeta, before settling for second.
Arriving from Japan is Derma Louvre, a Triple Crown nominee coming off back-to-back placings in points races at home. After a near-miss in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki in December, the Pyro colt was an underwhelming third in the Feb. 17 Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo. Perhaps Derma Louvre needed the prep. He looked pretty good during a three-race winning spree last fall. Post 5 is also a plus for Derma Louvre with regular pilot Christophe Lemaire.
No U.S. shipper has captured the UAE Derby, with the top Kentucky Derby hopefuls remaining stateside, but the trio of Plus Que Parfait, Gray Magician, and Stubbins aim to buck that stat. The form of Plus Que Parfait’s neck second in the Kentucky Jockey Club has taken its lumps this year. While his fifth in the Lecomte could be excused on account of a troubled passage, his 13th in the Risen Star called for going back to the drawing board. Trainer Brendan Walsh prescribed the dramatic change in venue, as well as the addition of blinkers and Jose Ortiz, and he’s gotten post 4.
Gray Magician, the lone router in trainer Peter Miller’s otherwise sprint-oriented band of shippers, takes the blinkers off after chasing home Maryland kingpin Alwaysmining in the Miracle Wood. Previously fourth to Gunmetal Gray in the Sham, Gray Magician is joined by fellow California-based Stubbins, who aired in the off-the-turf Pasadena Stakes on a sloppy trck. Both have stamina questions, and the speedy Stubbins has a tough task from post 12.
Despite the lack of clarity among the Dubai-based colts, trainer Ahmad bin Harmash has a real shot with his entrants for the Phoenix Ladies Syndicate. Walking Thunder shaped as the next big thing earlier in the Carnival when hacking up in three straight, only to lose his luster with a second to Estihdaaf in the UAE 2000 Guineas. The Triple Crown nominee didn’t have the best of trips that day, but he drew the rail and picked up Frankie Dettori.
Stablemate Golden Jaguar turned heads in a terrific debut at Jebel Ali, and again on the switch to turf at Meydan, but he lost his perfect mark narrowly in the Meydan Classic Trial. The son of Animal Kingdom has upside potential, and a great post 3 with Oisin Murphy, if he doesn’t cost himself by repeating rookie mistakes. He’s the only of the Phoenix Ladies trio not nominated to the Triple Crown, but he was given an entry in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. The aforementioned Superior, best of the rest behind Divine Image in the Al Bastakiya, adds cheekpieces and keeps stable rider Connor Beasley.
Manguzi, no match for Walking Thunder in their lone clash, has been hampered by wide draws in every Carnival start except his trial score. The French-bred has found a way to place regardless, but his consistency will be tested from the far outside post 14 Saturday.
The remaining contenders are all fillies trying to turn the tables on Divine Image. Godolphin’s Saeed bin Suroor, who trained Khawlah, sends out UAE Oaks runner-up Swift Rose. Post 13 implies she has her work cut out to get that close again. Of greater interest is the UAE Oaks third, Razeena, who was positively heroic throughout a wide trip. Trained by Doug Watson, Razeena could engineer a better passage this time, albeit from post 9. Al Hayette has the biggest mountain to climb after a well-beaten fifth in the Oaks and fourth in the Al Bastakiya.
Razeena and Al Hayette were not on the list of probables released last week. There were also two defections from the projected field, Estihdaaf and Grecko.
In addition to the Kentucky Derby 100-point award to the winner, the UAE Derby offers 40 Derby points to the runner-up, 20 to third, and 10 to fourth.
Churchill Downs release edited by Dick Downey