Godolphin’s multiple Group 1 winner Thunder Snow, a star on the Meydan dirt last winter, is set to return in the $250,000 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) on Thursday’s Dubai World Cup Carnival kickoff.
Contested over a metric mile, Round 1 serves as an early pointer to the Godolphin Mile (G2) on World Cup night, as well as the first of a series building up to the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1) itself. The about 1 3/16-mile Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) comes next on February 8, with the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1) at the World Cup’s about 1 1/4-mile trip on “Super Saturday,” March 10.
Thunder Snow brings a two-for-two record on the surface, having aired in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) before mugging Japan’s Epicharis in the UAE Derby (G2). Famously pulled up when bucking in the slop in the Kentucky Derby (G1), the Saeed bin Suroor pupil compiled a solid season back on the European turf. Thunder Snow stole the Prix Jean Prat (G1) and placed in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1), St James’s Palace (G1), and Prix Jacques le Marois (G1). He threw in a rare clunker in the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) on Champions Day, winding up a tailed-off last, but should be ready to turn in his typically fine effort in this four-year-old bow.
Yet Round 1 is no one-horse show. As of Monday’s initial entry stage (final declarations, posts, and riders to be announced Tuesday), Thunder Snow will meet a few smart rivals.
The Satish Seemar-trained North America was one of the stories of the 2017 Carnival, beginning his dirt career with four straight wins topped by the Firebreak (G3). His rapid climb ended with a 10th in the Godolphin Mile, perhaps a case of too much, too soon exacerbated by a pace duel. The Dubawi gelding is entitled to resume his forward march.
Heavy Metal, only eighth in the Godolphin Mile after crushing Super Saturday’s Burj Nahaar (G3), has already rebounded in his comeback. The Salem bin Ghadayer veteran resurfaced in the December 21 Dubai Creek Mile and dominated by 4 1/2 front-running lengths from Wild Dude.
Heavy Metal could be joined by a couple of high-profile stablemates in Long River and Frankyfourfingers. Long River, runner-up in Round 1 last year, went on to upset Round 3 but flopped in the World Cup. Frankyfourfingers was a notable runner of the 2015 Carnival, finishing second in Round 1 and winning Round 2, and signaled he could be regaining that old form with a victory at Jebel Ali December 29. Both Long River and Frankyfourfingers are cross-entered to an about 1 3/16-mile handicap on the undercard.
Cosmo Charlie was no match for Thunder Snow last Carnival, where he scored his marquee win in his absence in the Al Bastakiya. But his convincing course-and-distance victory on November 23 stamped him as one on the upgrade for top UAE trainer Doug Watson. In his next opportunity in the Dubai Creek Mile, though, Cosmo Charlie failed to confirm the impression and trudged home a distant fourth behind Heavy Metal. To be fair, he compromised himself by flubbing the start, rushing up, and getting himself out of sync. A better beginning would put Cosmo Charlie in a better light.
In addition to Thunder Snow, Godolphin has three in the mix. Bin Suroor’s Confrontation, the 2016 Firebreak winner for Kiaran McLaughlin, has not been seen since tailing off in his title defense behind North America. Charlie Appleby’s duo, Fly at Dawn and Van Der Decken, are both cross-entered to an about seven-furlong turf handicap.
The lone international shipper in Round 1 is Jeremy Noseda’s Keystroke, an all-weather specialist who just missed by a half-length in the Hyde S. at Kempton. He’s cross-entered to a turf handicap.
Also on the Thursday opener is the newly upgraded Singspiel, now a Group 3, at about 1 1/8 miles on turf. Godolphin has a grand total of six in the line-up, with bin Suroor’s Benbatl and Appleby’s Emotionless the principals. Benbatl, one of last season’s highly tried sophomores, scored his signature win in the Hampton Court (G3) at Royal Ascot. Forgive his subpar sixth on Haydock’s heavy ground in the Superior Mile (G3) in his 2017 finale. The once-exciting Emotionless still hasn’t won since sustaining an injury as a juvenile, but he’s shown glimmers of his old ability, as in his third in the Dubai City of Gold (G2) in his latest last March. Stablemate Bravo Zolo would be intriguing on the class hike, if he doesn’t opt for an undercard handicap instead, and fellow Appleby runner Bay of Poets is one of those with more talent than he’s put together so far on the racecourse.
Defending champion Light the Lights is one of three engaged for South African horseman Mike de Kock, along with old warhorse Sanshaawes and Dubai newcomer Icy Trail. Light the Lights hasn’t raced since his sixth in the Jebel Hatta (G1) on Super Saturday 2017, while Sanshaawes, fourth in the Jebel Hatta, called it a season after his close fourth in the Abu Dhabi Championship (G3) last March. Icy Trail, resuming from a year-long hiatus, may have the most upside. Reeling off three straight at this distance at Kenilworth, including the Premier’s Trophy (G2), he was seventh to next-out Sun Met (G1) winner Whisky Baron in last January’s Peninsula H. (G2).
British trainer Roger Varian dispatches an up-and-comer in Cape Byron, who’s won two of four starts. A Shamardal half-brother to reigning Prix Jean Romanet (G1) winner Ajman Princess, he was most recently third in his stakes debut in the Prix Le Fabuleux.
Opal Tiara is a British shipper back for more Meydan glory. The Mick Channon mare earned her biggest career victory in last year’s Balanchine (G2) over this course and distance, but her form regressed in the second half of the European season. She’ll need to step up versus males in this spot, which could be a pipe-opener for the February 17 renewal of the Balanchine.
Thursday’s card includes the Purebred Arabian edition of the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1. The undercard handicaps are not to be missed either, with brilliant turf sprinter Ertijaal back in action in the about five-furlong dash, bin Suroor’s Best Solution and Prize Money looming large in the about 12-furlong turf affair, de Kock’s South African Group 1 victor Noah from Goa topping an about seven-furlong contest, and Watson’s last-out Entisar romper, Etijaah, in the dirt handicap.