March 4, 2024

Dubai World Cup: Five U.S. runners among challengers to defending champ Thunder Snow

Thunder Snow became the first UAE Derby winner to capture the Dubai World Cup (c) Coady Photography

Saturday’s $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1) features a familiar storyline of Godolphin versus American dirt stars, with Saeed bin Suroor’s defending champion Thunder Snow opposed by Yoshida, Gunnevera, Seeking the Soul, Audible, and Pavel. While the World Cup’s two-decade history has fit that narrative, this 24th renewal could prove an exception thanks to locally based star North America.

Last year, Thunder Snow gave bin Suroor his eighth career World Cup victory, furthering his hold on the record book, and made history as the first UAE Derby (G2) winner to add Dubai’s iconic event. Now the homebred would achieve another unprecedented feat if he can win a second World Cup.

Indeed, a repeat effort is rare in itself, as only two World Cup winners have made a return visit. Silver Charm was sixth (1999), and African Story filled the same spot in his title defense (2015).

Thunder Snow is coming in with a lighter prep this time, having just one tune-up since his third to Accelerate and Gunnevera in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Reappearing in the March 9 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1) on Meydan’s Super Saturday, he was sure to need the race, and ran like it in a tiring second behind front-running upsetter Capezzano. Thunder Snow had been beaten in his 2018 Carnival comeback as well, but moved forward to win second out. Bin Suroor forecasts improvement here off the tightener. Although his task became trickier after drawing post 12 in the 13-horse field, he won from post 10 last year.

North America and jockey Richard Mullen romp to victory in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) on February 7, 2019 (c) Dubai Racing Club/Erika Rasmussen

But it’s also worth recalling that his archrival from last Carnival, North America, was expected to put up a bold show in the World Cup, only to flub the start and wind up last. An alert break would have seen North America in front early, not Thunder Snow. Trainer Satish Seemar realized the problem was the loud noise, and he’s since taken steps to make sure North America isn’t fazed by it.

North America had beaten Thunder Snow in their final prep for the 2018 World Cup, romping in Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge, and he’s come out firing this season with dominant wire jobs in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) and Round 2 (G2). Seemar deliberately passed on a Round 3 title defense on Super Saturday so that North America would be fresh going into his main objective. Post position is crucial for the front runner, and landing in the 3 spot is right in the inside zone that Seemar wanted. It might have been better without fellow pace factor Capezzano in post 2, though.

Three of the five American shippers competed in the Pegasus World Cup (G1), the successor race to the Donn H. (G1) that has continued its historic role as a key stepping stone to Dubai. The Dallas Stewart-trained Seeking the Soul rallied for second to City of Light, outfinishing Breeders’ Cup Classic champion Accelerate. Also runner-up to City of Light in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), Seeking the Soul will try to transfer his top form in the eight-to-nine furlong range to about 10 furlongs in the World Cup. The 2017 Clark H. (G1) hero picks up Hall of Famer Mike Smith.

Todd Pletcher is winless from six World Cup attempts, but he’s placed 50 percent of the time, and relies on Audible, third to Justify and Good Magic in the Kentucky Derby (G1) in his only try at the trip. Although last year’s Florida Derby (G1) romper has been beaten in both starts at Gulfstream Park this winter, his wide-trip fifth in the Pegasus World Cup was arguably a bit better than it looked. He projects a smoother passage from post 4.

Gunnevera, sixth in the Pegasus World Cup, could be aided by the extra furlong. Antonio Sano’s admirable money-spinner also deserves better luck in this second try at the World Cup; he had no chance a year ago when incurring a nastily bloodied hoof injury. If his deep-closing style puts him hostage to the pace, on a track where forwardly placed types can get away, his honesty and class as the runner-up in the 2017 Travers (G1) and 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic warrant respect.

Yoshida (c) Dubai Racing Club/Neville Hopwood

Yoshida, whose Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott captured the inaugural World Cup with Cigar, could be the most dangerous of the U.S.-based quintet. Initially a Grade 1-winning turf campaigner, the Japanese-bred son of Heart’s Cry switched to dirt in last summer’s Woodward (G1) and beat Gunnevera. Yoshida didn’t confirm the form in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, finishing fourth, but a bobble at the start and wide passage turning into the stretch may have factored.

Had Yoshida not had ownership interests overlapping with Audible, he might well have tried the Pegasus.  Back on the grass instead for the new Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1), he lagged too far back early and ground his way into sixth. Mott said afterward that Yoshida might be better on the dirt.

Japan’s lone World Cup winner, Victoire Pisa (2011), unsurprisingly came during the synthetic era, and Saturday’s flagbearer K T Brave is not his homeland’s best dirt performer. That would be the sidelined Le Vent Se Leve, or in his absence, the streaking Inti. Nevertheless, the nine-time stakes winner, and multiple Grade 1-placed performer, finds this distance right in his wheelhouse. With the addition of blinkers and Joao Moreira, K T Brave is capable of working out a decent trip, albeit from post 11.

The Doug O’Neill-trained Pavel, fourth to Thunder Snow in last year’s World Cup, brings a record muddled by inconsistency – and now adds a visor. If returning to his summertime form, highlighted by a signature win in the Stephen Foster H. (G1) and best-of-the-rest behind Accelerate in the Pacific Classic (G1), he’d be involved again. But his 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (for the second straight year), last in Japan’s Champions Cup (G1) (in which K T Brave was 11th), and distant fourth to ill-fated Battle of Midway and stay-at-home McKinzie in the San Pasqual (G2) leave room to question. Perhaps the visor will help.

The rest of the contenders all raced on Super Saturday, led by the aforementioned Capezzano in career form. The Salem bin Ghadayer trainee has won three straight, graduating from a pair of handicap scores over a metric mile – including a 14-length runaway in fast time – to dominate the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 at this trip. The quibble is that Round 3 heroics don’t carry over to the World Cup, unless your name is Dubai Millennium (2000), Street Cry (2002), or Electrocutionist (2006). In other words, Round 3 smacks of Capezzano’s “World Cup.”

In fact, the last five World Cup winners to exit Round 3 all lost. That raises the hopes not only of Thunder Snow, who was runner-up for the second time, but the other three looking to step up – Dolkong, New Trails, and Gronkowski, the respective third through fifth.

South Korea’s Dolkong has hit new heights since arriving in the desert, following up on a Curlin H. romp with a hard-charging third in Round 3, where he almost caught Thunder Snow for second. New Trails, from the Ahmad bin Harmash yard, was rampantly progressive until a flat fourth in Round 3. Previously a wide-margin handicap winner and closing second to North America in Round 2, New Trails could wake up again in a first-time visor here.

Rob Gronkowski might have retired from the NFL’s New England Patriots, but his namesake is eligible to do better second time out since joining Ghadayer on this circuit. Famously a surprise runner-up to Justify in the Belmont (G1) in his U.S. and dirt debut, the equine Gronkowski underperformed in his subsequent starts for Chad Brown. But the inaugural winner of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby made some late headway for fifth in Round 3, and now gets the services of a very heady rider in Oisin Murphy.

Fellow expat Axelrod, runner-up to McKinzie in last fall’s Pennsylvania Derby (G1), rounds out the trio of entrants for Bin Ghadayer. Unlike “Gronk,” Axelrod showed little in his Super Saturday contest, checking in 10th of 11 in the Burj Nahaar (G3) over a metric mile, and was “mildly lame” in his left front postrace. Axelrod faces a major task on the stretch-out, considering his Grade 3 scores came going shorter and that he was ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Wednesday’s draw via