The two racetracks hosting Kentucky Derby Championship Series races this weekend sit 7,983 miles apart and are as different as night and day.
The first of the two Derby preps will be held in the United Arab Emirates at Meydan Racecourse, which opened six years ago. It will be the site of Dubai World Cup Night that includes the UAE Derby (9:35 a.m. Saturday) for 3-year-olds. The Dubai card also includes the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup, featuring American hopefuls California Chrome, Frosted and Keen Ice.
The Fair Grounds Race Course, which has been holding races since the mid-1800s, plays host to the $1 million Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby Saturday afternoon down on the bayou. A field of 11 colts will attempt to garner valuable Derby qualifying points on the road to the Kentucky Derby May 7 in Louisville.
Both races will provide the top four finishers with 100-40-20-10 points, as the Championship Series has moved into the most valuable stage of qualifying. Over the next four weeks, seven races will provide points at this level and almost assure the top two finishers of each one of the 20 coveted gates at Churchill Downs.
The $2 million Group 2 UAE Derby attracted only seven horses, including two fillies that will run 1 3/16-miles at Meydan. The heavy favorite is the Russian-owned 3-year-old filly Polar River (3-5), who won the Group 3 UAE Oaks, defeating second choice Vale Dori (9-2) by three-quarters of a length. A filly has won this race only once, when Khawlah came out of the Oaks in 2011.
They will face males for the first time, including American-based Frank Conversation (8-1, 10 Derby points), winner of the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.
Frank Conversation, conditioned by Doug O’Neill, trainer of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another, drew the rail for owner Reddam Racing LLC. O’Neill was pleasantly surprised with the draw for jockey Mario Gutierrez.
“Knowing now that the one is very close to the first turn, I’m kind of happy for that. We just need to figure out how Mario will handle it, but it’s really up to him.”
Two Japanese horses will start in the UAE Derby, both trained by Hideyuki Mori. Yu Change (8-1) and On the Rocks (30-1) are both turf horses that will try dirt for the first time. In 1990, Mori was the first Japanese trainer to saddle a Kentucky Derby starter, and he’ll attempt to duplicate that feat with a win by either of his charges.
Both colts are relatively unknown with just two wins between them on the Japanese turf.
“I think a Japanese turf horse has a much better chance performing well on this kind of dirt surface than a Japanese dirt horse, who is used to running on a deep, sandy surface,” Mori told Kate Hunter for the Dubai Racing Club. “Our turf horses have much better speed than our dirt horses.”
The sleeper pick may be another Japanese colt who has run on dirt in Lani (10-1), who has top rider Yutaka Take in the irons. The smaller field could suit the Kentucky-bred son of Tapit.
Post Time Outlook – 1- Lani; 2 – Polar River; 3 – Vale Dori; 4 – Frank Conversation
Saturday’s Louisiana Derby drew a big field, with Risen Star runner-up Mo Tom (5-2) taking the favorite’s role from the horse he was beaten by, Gun Runner (3-1).
The LeComte winner suffered a horrible trip in the Risen Star when he was forced to check at the 3/16-pole and made a late run to recover to place. Owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle, the son of Uncle Mo looks to be the one to beat down south.
Trainer Tom Amoss doesn’t think that Mo Tom showed what he’s really made of despite the late run in the Risen Star.
“This is a horse that has a devastating quarter of a mile kick, and unfortunately it wasn’t on full display that day but I’m certainly hoping that we’ll get the opportunity to show it on Saturday, and the rest of the world can see what I already know,” Amoss told the national racing media on Tuesday.
Amoss, who hails from Louisiana, will have his five brothers and two parents rooting for him on Saturday, adding to the pressure to win the feature race of the Fair Grounds meeting.
“As time has gone on, I recognize how difficult it is to win these kind of races,” he said. “So I have a greater appreciation and respect for these kind of races, like the Louisiana Derby, and I’m still hopeful it’s got my name on it.”
His main challenger, Gun Runner, took advantage of Mo Tom’s misfortunes in the Risen Star and held off Forevamo (10-1) in the late stages to garner 50 Derby points and solidify his Kentucky Derby gate. Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys, the son of Candy Ride drew the rail.
David Fiske, long-time racing manager for Winchell, has confidence that his horse can overcome the post.
“He fired off a bullet last week and had a little maintenance work yesterday and came out of that in great shape, so I think he’s slightly disadvantaged by his post position draw but in the Risen Star, he worked his way over to the fence,” Fiske said on a call with the racing media. “He was kind of down on the inside going down the backside, kind of mid-pack, so hopefully he can get us some more trip on Saturday.”
Two challengers who could make some noise are Greenpointcrusader (7-2) with Hall of Famer John Velazquez aboard and Forevamo, who could be a nice price at post time.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Mo Tom; 2 – Forevamo; 3 – Greenpointcrusader; 4 – Candy My Boy
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.