Kentucky Derby Preview Series – The G2 UAE Derby – By Eric DeCoster

The $1 million UAE Derby (G2) is set to take place Saturday morning, with two guaranteed spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate on the line. Although yet to produce a Derby winner or placer, the UAE Derby produced a Kentucky Derby starter in eight of the ten years from 2009 to 2019, then the race was cancelled in 2020, and last year’s winner, Rebel’s Romance, was set to make an appearance in the Belmont Stakes before an injury took him out. This year is intriguing with six Triple Crown nominees among the sixteen runners, most of which are highly regarded in overseas markets. There is a strong American representation, with one of those runners eligible for Kentucky Derby points, and an even stronger Japanese contingent. Japanese runners have been dominant internationally in recent years, with even the likes of Lani and Master Fencer putting credible performances forward in the Triple Crown, a Japanese winner in this year’s UAE Derby could create some buzz in what’s shaping up to be a wide-open Kentucky Derby. It is also worth noting that the $6,000 late nomination for the Triple Crown is due on March 28th, meaning if a horse not nominated wins this race they could still find their way to the U.S. for a price.

Meydan 3/26/2022, Race 5: The Grade 2 UAE Derby

170 Kentucky Derby Points (100/40/20/10)

  • Post Positions in parentheses
  • # – Triple Crown Nominated
  • ^ – Ineligible for Kentucky Derby Points

1(13)^ – Irwin: One of three South American bred and based runners, Irwin probably sports the best resume amongst his continental counterparts. A four-time graded stakes winner in Argentina, he exits a dominating Grade 1 win last time out, drawing away convincingly going about 1 1/2 miles. However, that was last November, meaning he will have to not only overcome the long journey to Dubai, but also shake off the rust of a five-month layoff. Prior to that score he was disqualified from a runner-up effort in a Grade 1 on turf and secured his first career dirt G1 three starts ago. Irwin’s resume stands out and he will certainly have no problem navigating the 9.5 furlongs, but the layoff and lack of starts against quality competition is concerning.

2(15)^ – Kiefer: Likely the longest price of the South Americans, both Kiefer and Quality Boone boast recency and course experience in the Middle East. After starting his career three-for-three in Uruguay, Kiefer shipped to the UAE, where he placed in both the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) and its Trial. In both of those races he traveled wide throughout before finishing off sharply, and the form of the Guineas was flattered quite nicely in the Al Bastakiya (L) when Quality Boone and Bendoog ran 1-3 there after finishing directly behind Kiefer in the Guineas. This colt was then shipped to Riyadh for the Saudi Derby (G3), where he made a strong move from far back on the turn but flattened out in the lane. As disappointing as that performance may have been, Kiefer’s Meydan form wasn’t too bad and with pedigree there is reason to think a massive stretch out in distance could benefit him.

3(2)^ – Quality Boone: The winner of the Al Bastakiya (L), the final local prep, Quality Boone really improved when allowed to stretch out in distance last time out. He broke his maiden impressively enough last June in Uruguay to be sent to Meydan, where he actually won a handicap in December to kick off his Middle Eastern campaign. Following two solid underneath efforts in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) and UAE Guineas Trial, he stretched out to the 9.5 furlongs of the Al Bastakiya (L) and put together a strong victory coming from off-the-pace. A winner of the Al Bastakiya (L) has gone on to win the UAE Derby – Mubtaahij in 2015 – and last year we saw Panadol run a valiant second behind Rebel’s Romance. However, the performance by Quality Boone that day, as impressive as it was, didn’t suggest to me that he’s capable of taking out some of the other foreign raiders in here.

4(4) – Azure Coast: The Russian representative in this year’s UAE Derby, this colt has dazzled with two impressive last-to-first stakes victories at Meydan during this carnival. Azure Coast broke his maiden by a comfortable five lengths in Russia before coming to Meydan where he has clearly displayed his talent. Last time out in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3), he made up a ton of ground and stormed to an easy win against three horses who run in this spot. As previously mentioned, the form of the Guineas has held up quite nicely and he defeated that group with such ease that there is reason to believe he has a chance in here. Being by Street Sense and out of an Empire Maker mare, he should also be able to handle the jump up in distance, and on top of all that his deep closing running style plays well into this race with a hot, early pace expected. One to certainly keep in mind and one I plan to use underneath.

5(5) – Bendoog: Light on experience but its all been quality experience, Bendoog exits a third in the Al Bastakiya (L) after setting torrid fractions. He fought on gamely despite quick early clips, and fended off most of the speed before being run down late by closers Quality Boone and Withering. His other two runs saw him break his maiden in January at Meydan and then run fourth in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3). You can’t deny his fight, but he’s clearly been a cut below, and with a lot of early speed signed on it’s tough to envision he could find the winners circle on Saturday.

6(7) – Combustion: The first of a solid foursome from Japan, Combustion enters the UAE Derby off an impressive score in the Hyacinth S. (L) in Japan, a race on the Japanese Road to the Kentucky Derby. His career has been nothing but consistent with three wins and two seconds from five starts, with both losses being really strong efforts behind Sekifu, who runs here, and Dry Stout, a potential Kentucky Derby candidate in Japan. In the Hyacinth S. (L), this colt sat a really nice stalking trip, moved through at the rail when called upon, and held on to win by a neck. Another big positive is he picks up William Buick to ride given his association as the first-call rider for Godolphin, who own Combustion. The biggest question this colt has to answer is how far he wants to go. Although his sire won this race back in 2006, his progeny have tended to prefer going a mile or shorter, and Combustion himself is yet to run further than a mile and hasn’t given me the indication longer will suit him better. He’s up there in this field on talent, but needs to show he can go 9.5 furlongs.

7(10)# – Crown Pride: Another Japanese contender and the first horse in the field nominated to the American Triple Crown, Crown Pride‘s last effort may initially leave something to be desired, but I think there’s a lot of potential behind this colt. He started off his career two-for-two, winning some minor races going 1 1/8 miles in very easy fashion. He then stepped up to stakes company in his most recent start, running in the aforementioned Hyacinth S. (L). With the cutback in distance, being placed a little further back than he had been in his first two outs due to a compromised start, and being forced wide throughout, it’s understandable why he could only muster 6th beaten 3 1/2 lengths. I think stretching back out in distance and getting a better trip will do wonders for Crown Pride, and combine that with the Japanese domination on the world’s biggest stages recently, there is reason to think he could be a big threat in the UAE Derby.

8(12) – Get Back Goldie: The first of the three Americans trying to take down this year’s UAE Derby, Get Back Goldie is a stakes winner at Meydan who most recently ran 6th in the Al Bastakiya (L). In that race, he was sent to challenge and dueled for the lead three-wide before backing out and tiring down the stretch. One would think a lighter pace may benefit this colt, but the issue is there’s as much, if not more, speed signed on for this one. Although his best career race came sprinting against a light field at Meydan, he is a winner going a mile. However, given his pedigree, build, and running style, he doesn’t seem like the type who can really handle the distance of 9.5 furlongs on Saturday. A toss for me.

9(9)# – Gilded Age: A horse quickly on the rise and exiting one of the hottest races of the Triple Crown trail stateside, Gilded Age has the chance to continue bolstering the record of American runners in the UAE Derby in recent years. After a couple distant defeats to begin his career, Bill Mott added blinkers to his charge and saw him skyrocket into the winners circle with a very strong come-from-behind maiden win at Churchill last November. He was then off until early February, where he entered the Withers S. (G3) as the wise-guy horse and ran a very game third on the day in a race that didn’t play into his running style. Initially, many thought the Withers was going to be a rather weak prep, but since the running runner-up Un Ojo picked up a win in the Rebel S. (G2) and fourth-place finisher Grantham was second in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3). On top of this good form, the race will play well into Gilded Age‘s running style, making him a real threat in here. This is a colt who reminds me a lot of 2019 UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait, who faced a salty bunch in the Risen Star S. (G2) (a race that featured the eventual Derby winner, Preakness winner, two future Grade 1 winners, and three future graded stakes winners) before heading over to Dubai to take down this race. A must use in all scenarios.

10(3)# – Island Falcon: The only Dubai-based runner for Godolphin in this year’s UAE Derby, Island Falcon couldn’t manage better than 8th in the Saudi Derby (G3) in his most recent start. That was his dirt debut, and before that he won back-to-back races on the turf, one of which came going 9 furlongs. This is a colt who was the only non-American from the international Godolphin enterprise to be Triple Crown nominated, so the connections clearly view him as a type to get over the dirt, and I think it’s interesting they’re running him back off a poor race. I will say I like that he’s getting back out in distance and gets to go two turns, but he leaves a lot to be desired off that race last time out.

11(6)#^ – Pinehurst: The heavy favorite for Bob Baffert off a big score in the Saudi Derby (G3), Grade 1 winner Pinehurst looks like he’ll take a bit too much money for my liking in a race where he has plenty of questions to answer. He is clearly a horse with plenty of talent, his wins last year and the Saudi Derby (G3) score showed a colt with the potential to be a stellar long sprinter or miler. It’s clear he’s the type to head to the lead and try to blitz the field on the front end, which he successfully did in Riyadh, albeit a bit wearily. There is nothing in his pedigree really suggesting stretching out to such a long distance will benefit Pinehurst, and compounded with no two turn experience and an unfavorable running style, he is a play against in my eyes. Worth noting, this colt is still in the care of Baffert and therefore is ineligible for Kentucky Derby points, however, given Baffert is likely to be suspended during the Triple Crown there is a chance Pinehurst could contend a different leg for a different trainer.

12(1)# – Reiwa Homare: Set to be guided by Christophe Lemaire, who dominated the Saudi Cup card a month ago, Reiwa Homare has been contentious with similar to this type over in Japan but has multiple factors to overcome. 1-for-3 in his career, he debuted poorly on the grass before switching to dirt for start number two and won by 3 1/2 lengths. He then appeared in late October in a salty allowance, where he was a game second beaten only a head by Sekifu. He hasn’t ran since then however, and in addition hasn’t been further than a mile or around two turns. With the layoff and distance, plus a tough inside draw, I think it’s a bit too much too soon for Reiwa Homare.

13(14)# – Sekifu: The leading Japanese hope on the heels of a strong closing, runner-up effort in the Saudi Derby (G3), Sekifu has plenty of people’s attention heading into this race and is likely to head to Louisville with a 1-2 finish. In Riyadh, he broke rather poorly and as a result was forced to make a sustained, wide bid rather than put himself in contention early. I’m rather convinced he could’ve won if he broke in tandem with the rest of the field, which honestly would’ve cut his price in half here. That being said, if he breaks similarly on Saturday, he will be in deep trouble. Sekifu does have very similar concerns to the horse that beat him in that spot – distance inexperience and pedigree. He has been restricted to one-turn sprints or miles throughout his career and has clearly excelled at these distances. While I have more optimism he can get the distance than Pinehurst, and his running style won’t hinder him in the same way it will Pinehurst, I still think he is one to proceed with caution on.

14(8) – Summer is Tomorrow: The first in a string of three local outsiders to round out this massive field, Summer is Tomorrow has been fed a steady diet of experience with six runs since debuting in November. This was highlighted by a stakes win in late February, his final start into the UAE Derby, where he won by over eight lengths in fairly easy fashion. As he stretches out for the first time, it’s likely he’ll be a factor in the early speed, continuing the trend of a contentious pace. To me, this is another horse with too much early speed and distance questions to be a factor in here.

15(11) – Withering: Another one with tons of Meydan experience, Withering holds the positive of winning at this distance two starts ago in the Al Bastakiya Trial. He finished strongly that day from well of the speed and certainly inspired big hopes for this race. He followed that up with a good runner-up effort in the Al Bastakiya (L) last time out, but I didn’t like how he was out finished by Quality Boone that day. I will say, he was a bit closer up then than he was in the Trial and if he was as far back as he was in the Trial there’s a good chance he could’ve finished better in his last race. He’s intriguing since the race plays to his strengths and the quality experience at the distance is a ginormous plus when so many others have questions regarding that, but it is also fair to wonder if he’s just plain good enough to menace on Saturday.

16(16) – Arabian Gazelles: The easiest toss among this bunch and the only filly in the race, Arabian Gazelles is still a maiden from two runs at Meydan. After a fourth place finish on debut in maiden company, she stretched out to 9 furlongs and placed in the UAE Oaks (G3), where she made a strong rally late to only be beaten two lengths by Shahama, expected to run next in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) for trainer Todd Pletcher. However, a terrible post, no wins, and facing the boys doesn’t suggest a similar effort coming up in this spot.

The Verdict: 9-7-4

I really like the American, Gilded Age, in this year’s UAE Derby. He makes a ton of sense on paper with his running style and steady improvement in his last two starts. Even though he’s shipping half way across the world, there’s plenty of reason to think he’ll improve in his second start as a three-year old. As previously mentioned, Americans have had good luck in this race in recent years with less than stellar horses, and Gilded Age seems to be a little better than that label. In a 16 horse field it’s certainly fair to think a handful could win, which is also why I’m considering Crown Pride to be my “1A” horse in here. He is a bit of a price in European markets and will likely play the same stateside, probably high teens to low twenties range, but I feel like improvement could be seen as he gets to stretch back out to more favorable distances. The key for him will be breaking well and saving some ground in the second or third flight into the first turn. If he is able to sit a handful of lengths off the lead in the 6th-8th range, I’ll feel really good about his chances when the pressure gets turned up. Finally, I do think Azure Coast will continue to display some quality while also being a cut below these top two. I imagine he’ll be a good 15-20 lengths from the hot pace, which works in his favor, but I think both Gilded Age and Crown Pride will get first run and be a touch better than the Russian colt who will be flying on late for some minors.

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