April 15, 2021

Reilly’s five favorite Dubai World Cup winners

Cigar at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions (James Shambhu)

Monday of Dubai World Cup (G1) week is supposed to be filled with the adrenaline of studying the declared fields for the Saturday extravaganza. But in yet another example of how COVID-19 is smashing our familiar routines of life, the understandable cancellation of the World Cup has left a void.

So, my fellow Dubai racing fans, let’s repurpose this week from forward-looking analysis and opinions to celebrating our memories of World Cup nights past. There’s no better way to start than with the marquee event itself.

I’m describing this exercise as my five favorite World Cup winners, mainly to highlight its subjective nature. The top two are foregone conclusions, but beyond that, personal preference is the name of the game.

That’s why a few of the obvious possibilities aren’t included. For me, it’s not so much about the best who duly won as it’s about the surrounding circumstances that made these triumphs special.

5. Captain Steve

The 2001 World Cup wasn’t the deepest, and Captain Steve would not rank this high in a merit-based assessment of winners. But I’d been following him since he was just a hip number in the Fasig-Tipton July catalog, my interest sealed when he sold for $70,000 to Bob Baffert, agent. (Never scouted in person, just trawling for yearling prospects at my old computer desk in New Orleans.) Hence aside from the people who bred, raised, bought, and cared for Captain Steve, I was his original fan from afar.

I remember the excitement of learning that he was named, receiving his first workout reports via stable mail, and seeing his progression into a Grade 1-winning juvenile. Although the 2000 season revealed that Captain Steve was just below the best of his generation, he was a hard-trying, honorable servant who beat an inexperienced Tiznow in the Swaps (G1) before the Hall of Famer reached his peak.

No disgrace to be third-best to Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Captain Steve complimented them in absentia when driving clear at old Nad al Sheba the following March. It was my best birthday present ever to cheer him on the Fair Grounds television on the way to a celebratory lunch at Windsor Court.

4. Animal Kingdom

Arguably the only winner during Meydan’s synthetic era who could have won a World Cup on dirt too, champion Animal Kingdom enhanced his stature in the 2013 edition. The Team Valor homebred with the global fusion pedigree was a multi-surface performer of the highest caliber, famously becoming the first to capture the Kentucky Derby (G1) in his dirt debut and finishing a rattling if troubled second to Wise Dan in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) off a layoff.

Yet his career still has a whiff of what-might-have-been. If not for his collision-induced injury in the 2011 Belmont (G1) that cost him the rest of his sophomore season, and being sidelined again in early 2012, how much more might he have accomplished?

As I watched Animal Kingdom roll home at Meydan from my TwinSpires.com cubicle, the satisfaction transcended seeing my rooting interest win. The Graham Motion trainee was gaining compensation for lost time. His World Cup triumph was all the more important since he ran only once more, disappointing at Royal Ascot, then retired to stud on Southern Hemisphere time in the second half of 2013.

3. Silver Charm

There’s not much in the way of compensation for having the Triple Crown slip from your hands in the shadow of the wire, but Silver Charm’s 1998 World Cup was a healing balm. The battling qualities that earned him the Derby and Preakness (G1) trophies were fully engaged again at Nad al Sheba.

Silver Charm had a fight on his hands to put away challenges from Malek and Loup Sauvage on either side. Then Swain was produced last of all. Might jockey Mick Kinane have been trying to take a page from the playbook of Chris McCarron, who in the Belmont cleverly steered Touch Gold wide, fast, and late to mug Silver Charm? If so, he wasn’t far enough away, and Silver Charm kept finding enough to hold on grimly.

Sure, there have been other World Cup thrillers, but none between an American Hall of Famer and a two-time King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) winner.

2. Dubai Millennium

One of my Fair Grounds simulcast brethren yelled “Here come Behrens!” in his short-lived rally in the 2000 World Cup. But my eyes were fixed on the other-worldly leader who had yet to take flight.

Fulfilling the prophecy encoded in his name, Dubai Millennium stormed clear in a manner that called to mind the all-time greats. The bare facts about his 6-length margin in a Nad al Sheba record of 1:59.50 don’t convey the chill-up-the-spine sensation when you know that you’re witnessing a race for the ages.

Dubai Millennium had a more tragic destiny, dying prematurely during his first season at stud. From that precious crop, he left us Dubawi, sire of two World Cup winners in Monterosso (2012) and Prince Bishop (2015). The passage of time has added further layers of meaning to Dubai Millennium’s World Cup.

1. Cigar

Watching the inaugural World Cup on tape delay at home, I was on tenterhooks until Cigar forged ahead. A brief sense of relief was soon replaced by that sinking feeling as Soul of the Matter (!) collared Cigar and appeared to have him dead to rights. But Cigar was fighting back….where was the blasted wire? Never having seen a race from Nad al Sheba before, I had no idea, and didn’t know whether to fear it would come too soon or too late. As Cigar finally won the war of wills, I finally took a breath.

Fast forward about a decade and a half, to a visit with the Hall of Famer at the Kentucky Horse Park. I was regaling my sister with his tale of heroism in the desert, how foot troubles had cost him valuable training time, how Cigar dug deep to repel Soul of the Matter and extend his winning streak to 14.

At that, Cigar, who had appeared to be blithely ignoring our presence outside his stall, took notice. He raised his head and nodded at me, as if to say, “D*** right I did.”