For Godophin Racing and Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, an elusive Kentucky Derby victory may finally be in reach. In late February, Sheikh Mo’s Darley Racing purchased a majority interest in Cairo Prince, a horse sitting on or near the top of most racing pundits’ Derby top contender lists, including this turf writer’s.
This afternoon, the blue silks of Godophin will be worn by Luis Saez aboard the Holy Bull winner, who will take on seven other colts in the $1 million Florida Derby (6:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network) at Gulfstream Park. Cairo Prince (9-5), the son of 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof theNile, currently has 14 points and will need a top three finish in the 1∂-mile race to propel him into a Derby gate. The top four finishers at Gulfstream will earn 100-40-20-10 points toward qualifying for one of the 20 available spots in the Derby.
Since 1999, Godophin has had eight starters in the Run for the Roses, none of which has ever hit the board. China Visit has the stable’s best result, finishing sixth in 2000. Alpha, the Travers co-winner, was the last entrant for the Ruler of Dubai, finishing 12th in 2012. In 1992, Arazi, a horse co-owned by Al Maktoum, bred by late Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., finished eighth.
It’s no secret in racing circles that the Sheikh, who serves as the vice president of the United Arab Emirates, covets the Kentucky Derby trophy for his mantle in Dubai.
Cairo Prince was co-owned by four individuals who retained a minority interest in the promising 3-year-old after selling off a majority share to Darley. One of the four individuals, Harvey Clarke, sold the 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another for $11,000 in September 2010 at the Keeneland yearling sale. Clarke and his partners purchased Cairo Prince for $250,000 out of the 2012 Keeneland yearling auction. This time he kept a piece of a horse that could land him in the winner’s circle in Louisville.
Similar to Godophin and the Sheikh, Cairo Prince’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is hoping to win his first Derby to mirror last year’s win by Orb by fellow Lexington native Shug McGaughey, his first Derby win. Orb was also last year’s Florida Derby winner.
“Yes, being we’re both Lexington natives. I grew up 73 miles from Churchill Downs, and traveled 7,300 miles to Dubai for 10 years, and to end up back 73 miles again from home with a possible chance to win, it would be priceless,” McLaughlin said earlier in the week.
The one thing that could slow McLaughlin’s prize colt is the weather, as there is a chance of rain in South Florida this afternoon.
“We are a little worried about the track weather-wise,” McLaughlin said. “If it’s real wet, he’s never run on a real wet racetrack. That’s always a concern.”
Second place finisher in the Fountain of Youth, General a Rod (7-2), a son of Roman Ruler, could be the main threat to Cairo Prince. “You haven’t seen it yet but I think his best asset is going to be his tactical speed,” trainer Michael Maker said. “He’s got a high cruising speed, and I think you’ll see the true General a Rod once the distances increase. He has never disappointed us,” he said.
This is the critical stage on the Kentucky Derby trail and this weekend presents two other big prep races aside from the Florida Derby. Kicked off by the UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard this morning, the Series will continue this afternoon at the Fair Grounds with the $1 million Louisiana Derby.
Several top-flight colts stand out in the Fair Grounds meeting’s biggest race, including the top two finishers of the local prep race, the Risen Star Stakes. Intense Holiday, a Harlan’s Holiday colt owned by Starlight Racing and trained by Todd Pletcher, comes in off a victory over Albano by a nose in the Risen Star.
Starlight Racing returns to the Derby trail after last year’s disappointing finish with the 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby. Starlight’s Jack Wolf has high hopes for Intense Holiday.
“Last year we had all the press with Shanghai Bobby, but Intense Holiday has been just sort of the opposite; he didn’t have much luck when he made these graded stakes as a 2-year-old,” Wolf said. “But I think he’s coming along at the time that you’d want a horse to come along for getting ready for the Louisiana Derby. So the two paths that the horses have taken, I’d much rather be in the shoes of this one, and I think this one probably has more of a propensity to do the longer distance than Shanghai Bobby.”
Albano’s trainer Larry Jones quipped about the close loss to Intense Holiday in the Risen Star.
“I wished in the Risen Star it had been about 10 yards shorter. I do think it helped Mr. Wolf’s horse to make up some ground coming there. It is a long stretch. I’m not saying it just favors the closers, but like I said, they sure have a good shot to make the run at you. But as far as Albano goes, I think we’ll be just fine.”
In Trouble, who could make some noise in the Big Easy, decided to try a different route to Louisville, shipping down from New York after finishing a close third in the Gotham at Aqueduct. The finish was impressive, going two turns for the first time where he battled well-regarded Samraat and Uncle Sigh in the stretch at the Big A after a long layoff. He should be ready to fire this afternoon, which would put him in a perfect spot on the form cycle for the First Saturday in May.
The UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai has 12 colts entered including U.S.-bred Giovanni Boldini, second place finisher in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. A preview of that race and the $10 million Dubai World Cup can be found online at the Sports, Ink blog at buffalonews.com.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association.