Geoff Lester column

Geoff Lester column


International Affairs: London – Quality racing and warm weather are thin on the ground in Europe at this time of the year, but in less than seven hours we can be in Dubai, where we are guaranteed 24 degrees and some top-class action for the start of the Meydan Carnival on Thursday.

Entries include representatives from 15 countries and winners of 14 Grade or Group 1 races from all points on the globe, culminating with the UAE’s biggest night of the year on 31 March, with $30 million up for grabs and the climax the biggest pot of them all, the 23rd Dubai World Cup ($10 million).

Even Michel and Albert Roux would be pushed to come up with more mouth-watering appetisers over the next 10 weeks and from a punting perspective it is worth noting that the two most successful outfits at the Carnival in recent years have been Godolphin and Doug Watson.

Watson is always likely to pop up with a good-priced winner and I recommend you keep a particular eye on his horses who are ridden by Pat Dobbs in the coming weeks.

But it is Godolphin who could be calling the shots on Day 1.

We ought to be with the boys in blue for Round 1 of the Maktoum Challenge, courtesy of THUNDER SNOW, who will forever be remembered as the horse who downed tools leaving the stalls in last year’s Kentucky Derby, performing a rodeo act and wanting nothing to do with America’s most prestigious race on the first Saturday in May.

Thunder Snow had looked impressive on the dirt of Meydan earlier in the year, winning both the UAE 2000 Guineas and Derby.

But whatever troubled him at Churchill Downs – maybe someone offered him one of those disgusting mint juleps that the Kentuckians love so much or possibly it was just the muddy track he detested – was a distant memory three weeks later when he beat all except the mighty Churchill in the Irish 2000 Guineas at The Curragh.

Thunder Snow followed up with a cracking third behind Barney Roy at Royal Ascot before winning the Group 1 Prix Jean Prat at Chantilly and finishing a close third in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville.

He was over the top by the time the QE II Stakes was run at Ascot on Champions Day, but Saeed bin Suroor tells me that Thunder Snow has thrived for a long winter break and he carries maximum stable confidence.

Bin Suroor had a troubled 2017 in Europe, his 65 winners making him distinctly second-best behind Godolphin’s other trainer, Charlie Appleby, whose 106 winners accumulated the sheikhs more than £2 million.

However, Bin Suroor, who was a policeman in Dubai before starting training, remains very much king of the castle on his home patch – he has won seven World Cups and has been champion trainer at the carnival on numerous occasions. He hopes and expects Thunder Snow to kick-start his meeting in style.

The main threat will come from Heavy Metal, who will have the edge in fitness, having blitzed the opposition with an aggressive display of front-running to win in Listed grade here before Christmas.

Not that I am underestimating North America either. This ex-Godolphin horse beat Heavy Metal over the track this time last year and has proved a revelation on the surface.

The Singspiel Stakes, upgraded to Group 3 status this year, also promises to be a real humdinger, with Mike de Kock running both the evergreen Sanshawes (Colm O’Donoghue) and Light the Lights (Christophe Soumillon).

Sanshawes came out the better when the pair finished fourth and sixth respectively in last year’s Group 1 Jebel Hatta, but neither may cope with the Godolphin contingent, who look particularly strong.

It might be significant that William Buick has opted for Bay Of Poets, but the vibes filtering through about stablemate BENBATL are equally positive and he is my choice.

He won the Hampton Court at Royal Ascot last summer and also ran a highly respectable race behind Enable in the King George, where the 2400m trip found him out.

However, the best bet of the night looks to be ERTIJAAL in the 1000m handicap on turf.

Sheikh Hamdan’s speedball was awesome at last year’s carnival, seeing off everything over this trip but finding the petrol gauge running dry in the last 200m when stepped up in distance for the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night. Back to his optimum trip and with the inside draw, he’ll be very hard to catch.

De Kock has to take on a five-horse challenge from Godolphin in the 1400m handicap, but even with top weight his Zabeel Mile runner-up NOAH FROM GOA ought to be a tough nut to crack.

Back in Britain, Joseph O’Brien, still on a high after his Melbourne Cup triumph in November, is planning frequent raids across the water on the all-weather this winter.

O’Brien is fortunate to have a Polytrack at Dundalk and both HIGHLY APPROVED and AIBELL gained experience of the surface on the Dublin course, which should stand them in good stead for their foray to Lingfield on Wednesday.

I particularly like the chance of Aibell, who showed plenty of promise on her debut in what looked a decent maiden. She will have learned plenty from that and is well worth an interest in the finale.

And on Saturday at Lingfield I can highly recommend Michael Bell’s SACRED ACT in the valuable 1600m handicap.

Sacred Act has done well since switching to Bell from John Gosden’s stable, and the form of his second to Arcanada over the course and distance in November got a timely boost when the winner took the feature race there last weekend.

On the same programme I also like ASCOT DAY in the sprint handicap. He is three times a winner on the all-weather, and his trainer, David Simcock, has his team in top form. Veteran Boom The Groom is the one for the Exacta.

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