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Sheiks have their own ways

Apr 24, 2001 8:17 AM

If the Arab oil sheiks were to contemplate a theme song for their thoroughbred racing enterprise, Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" would be numero uno on their list.

Without argument, their objective has been to corner the American racing scene, namely the classics. However, I must say they have yet to succeed. They have in the past used some unusual training rituals in getting their charges ready for some big American races. This year is no exception.

You see, the sheiks who control the Godolphin Stable are about to send Street Cry and Express Tour into this year’s 127th Kentucky Derby without a U.S. prep race under their belts. What this does, to a handicapper like myself, is make it difficult if not impossible, to gauge their ability and how they measure up to the likes of Point Given, Monarchos, Balto Star, Millennium Wind and the other Derby contenders come the first Saturday in May. It remains a true mystery, but one of these years, their unorthodox program will succeed.

"There are a bunch of nice horses over here," said Eric Coatrieux, who’s overseeing the Godolphin colts until head trainer Saeed bin Suroor arrives. "Of the years we’ve been coming here, this field looks to be the toughest. But I wouldn’t trade with any of them."

Either in their own name or that of Godolphin, the Maktoum brothers, Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum and Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, have run seven horses in the Derby since 1992. None finished higher than sixth.

Every year, however, the Maktoums tweak their game plan. Last year, for example, they sent a string of 2-year-olds, including Street Cry, to campaign in California.

The Irish-bred Street Cry held his own, posting a victory and three close seconds in California. Then he was shipped to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he finished third to Macho Uno and Point Given, beaten by only a length and a half.

But then he was shipped back to Dubai, where his only two starts this year have been a victory in the United Arab Emirates 2000 Guineas, a new prep race, and a head loss to stablemate Express Tour in the $1.2 million UAE Derby March 24.

The colts arrived at Churchill two weeks ago on April 10, which would have given them the opportunity to run in at least one U.S. Derby prep after clearing quarantine. Instead, they’ll go into the race off workouts.

Why are the Maktoums so averse to testing the competition in American preps?

"I guess we feel we don’t need to," Coatrieux said. "We feel we have our own preps over there."

The last horse to win the Derby without a U.S. prep was Canonero II in 1971. But at least he had a couple of wins at the Derby distance (a mile and a quarter) in Venezuela.

In the case of the Godolphin colts, they prep for the Derby in a controlled environment. The Maktoums own both the track and the best horses. It’s difficult believing the Godolphin colts get the same kind of rough-and-tumble seasoning that the American contenders get in such races as the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial.

"They’ve got some fabulous prep races for them over there," said John Ward, trainer of Monarchos. "But they don’t get the hardness over there that you get here. Our prep races are conducted under very difficult conditions. They give our 3-year-olds an extra amount of seasoning that creates the mental toughness necessary to win the Derby."

While Street Cry seems to have flourished during his return to Churchill Downs, Express Tour suffered a bruised left front foot April 14 that kept him out of training for several days.

A son of Tour d’Or, Express Tour was purchased by Godolphin last fall after he had dominated his competition in Florida, winning three consecutive races. This year his only race is the UAE Derby, meaning he would be only the seventh horse since 1955 to start in the Kentucky Derby off only one start as a 3-year-old.

If neither Street Cry nor Express Tour is a factor in the Derby, the Maktoums will go back to the drawing board and continue revising their philosophy.

"They want to win it on their own terms as much as possible," said John Asher, Churchill’s vice president for communications. "They had Street Cry in California all last year, so his presence is an example of how they’re tweaking things. I understand they’re going to have a string in both California and New York this year."

Watching the Godolphin horses, the American trainers aren’t sure what to make of them. They certainly must be respected. Yet there also are doubts about whether they’re battle-hardened enough to beat the leading U.S. contenders.

Asked about Street Cry after a workout last week, Coatrieux pointed to how well he ran at Churchill in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

"He’s used to the scene, so that should help him," Coatrieux said. "He’s in shape already so he doesn’t need a lot of work. The Derby looks tough, but at least Street Cry is in the (picture) frame."

So we will have to wait and see if this is the year for the brothers Maktoum. If not, will they make changes for the fall campaign, namely the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont? We shall wait and see.

Next week, I will give you my in-depth look at "The Run For The Roses" complete with my wagering strategy.