ARCADIA, Calif. --- It's a long way from the last Saturday in October to the first Saturday in May. But that long-off (189 days) date will soon be one of the horse racing world's hottest topics of conversation, especially in the Middle Eastern kingdom of Dubai.
Thanks to sparkling victories in a pair of back-to-back championship races for 2-year-olds at Santa Anita Park Saturday, Dubai's Sheikh Muhammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and his wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, possess --- technically in separate ownerships --- two of the top candidates for the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
Midshipman, a chestnut colt whose sire (Unbridled's Song) and grandsire (Unbridled) also won Breeders' Cup races, was a very impressive winner of the $2 million, 1 1/16 mile Juvenile under Garrett Gomez. Forty two minutes later, a gray gelding named Donativum ran off with the $1 million Juvenile Turf over a mile of grass.
Neither of the royal highnesses were among the 51,331 fans on hand for the gorgeous afternoon of racing, but their employees seemed quite enthusiastic about both horses' prospects for May 2 in Louisville.
"I think this horse has a great shot [at the Derby]," John Ferguson, the royal couple's racing manager, said of Midshipman.
"It's a little early in the year to really figure out a mile and a quarter," added Garrett Gomez, Midshipman's jockey. "But, you know, he's a good looking colt. He's a long striding horse. ... He's got the movements to go the mile and a quarter [Derby distance]."
Baffert trained Midshipman before previous owner Robert McNair, owner of the NFL Houston Texans, recently sold most of his horses to Sheikh Muhammed. But the Sheikh kept the horse under Baffert's management.
"I want to thank Sheikh Mohammed for letting me be part of the team. They could have easily taken him away from me and put him in the blue colors [of the Sheikh's Godolphin Stable]," Baffert said.
"But I'm willing to train for the blue colors, too," Baffert said. "Sheikh Mohammed [and I] we go way back. We see him at the sales and we was always asking me 'What's it take to win the Derby? How many horses?' "
"I have what it takes to win the Derby," Baffert emphasized.
Donavitum might end up being strictly a grass horse and not a prospect for the Churchill Downs main track. But don't forget, the winners of the last two Derbies --- Barbaro and Big Brown --- began their careers as successful grass runners before also excelling when they were moved to the dirt.
Donavitum is trained by John Gosden, who also won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic with Raven's Pass, also owned by the Dubai couple.
"He can definitely go further [that Saturday's one mile]," Gosden said. "With a gelding like this [with no breeding value], let's be honest, you go for the money, and you go for the nice races and you take chances. It's [the Derby] no problem. So I would never be frightened at looking at anything."
Gosden said he probably would recommend against prepping in Dubai, if the Sheikh decided to end Donavitum to the Derby.
"It's a tough race," Gosden said. "You'd want to be in America for at least two months beforehand. I don't think you can wing in and run."
Ferguson said he and other managers of the racing operation will meet with the Sheikh over the next two weeks to discuss the future plans for their horses. By then the Derby will be only 25 weeks away.
--- Bob Summers