Combustion will be a first Dubai World Cup day runner for Godolphin’s Japanese arm when he lines up for trainer Keizo Ito.
Horses from the United States, Uruguay, UAE, Russia and Japan will clash in a wide-open edition of the Group 2 UAE Derby (sponsored by Mubadala).
With 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points on the table for the winner, the race is an important step for three-year-olds hoping to run for the roses on the first Saturday in May, something being considered by the Japanese contingent.
Japan is represented by four runners in the 1900-metre dirt contest: Combustion, Sekifu, Crown Pride and Reiwa Homare. Tentative favourite is Combustion, who will be a first Dubai World Cup day runner for Godolphin’s Japanese arm when he lines up for trainer Keizo Ito.
“He’s had a successful juvenile career and he established a new track record in the Hyacinth last start, so he’s definitely a horse with talent in Japan,” said Harry Sweeney, President of Godolphin Japan.
“Most Japanese Group races are on turf though and so we may not have the confidence that we would have with a top-class turf runner. It’s sand really in Japan, so it’s a little bit different from here and it can be much deeper.”
Combustion was beaten by Sekifu in the G2 Hyogo Junior Grand Prix in November and the Koshiro Take-trained colt was a strong staying second in the G3 Saudi Derby last time out, behind the Bob Baffert-trained Pinehurst, who he faces again here.
If Japan are to claim the UAE Derby for a second time, following the victory of Lani in 2016, then they must overcome a strong home team which includes three trained by Bhupat Seemar. First string looks to be Listed Al Bastakiya third Bendoog, the choice of stable jockey Tadhg O’Shea.
“Bendoog got a bit legless (in the Al Bastakiya) but also they went wide and he might have gone closer if they’d come to him,” said Seemar. “The race just went against him – there was so much pace and he was up with it and he was the only one of those who hung on and ran a game race. The winner and the second came from the back which showed the pace was strong. I think there’s big improvement to come from him.”
The plan this time is for Bendoog to not make the running, a task which may fall to his stablemate.
“Summer Is Tomorrow is a natural pace horse; you can’t choke him,” continued Seemar. “He’s going to be up there although I’m not sure what they’re going to do with Pinehurst. He’s the favourite, but if he has to go with Summer Is Tomorrow then someone is going to be in trouble.”
The third member of Seemar’s squad is inexperienced filly Arabian Gazelles, second to Shahama in the G3 UAE Oaks on just her second start.
“The great thing for Arabian Gazelles is that she will carry 53 kilograms,” says Seemar. “She’s tough, she’s genuine, she can take kickback… if there’s a lot of pace she’ll be finishing, but so will a few others. At least we know she can stay the distance and she’s only had two runs so she’s still improving.”
Arabian Gazelles aims to become just the second filly to win the UAE Derby after Khawlah, subsequently dam of Derby winner Masar, in 2011.
One of the most intriguing members of the 14-strong field is Pavel Vashchenko’s Azure Coast, unbeaten in three career starts including the G3 UAE 2000 Guineas, when he closed strongly from the rear of the field.
Uruguay is well-represented in the race, with Al Bastakiya winner Quality Boone joined by his Antonio Cintra-trained stablemate Irwin, while the Hong Kong-owned Kiefer lines up for Ricardo Colombo.
“Quality Boone just gets better with each race,” says Cintra. “They will go a good pace which is good for him as he has a powerful finish.”
Of G1 Argentine Derby winner Irwin, who has his first run for the stable, he said: “Irwin got sick when he arrived and spent a month in the hospital, but since then he has improved and improved. He’s a fast horse, he will be in the first four or five early on. The only thing is that we don’t know how having been sick will affect him after that.”
The field is completed by two more US challengers, Bill Mott’s Gilded Age and Doug O’Neill’s Get Back Goldie, while Al Bastakiya second Withering goes for Fawzi Nass and Island Falcon takes his chance for Saeed Bin Suroor, who has won this race on a record eight occasions.