LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) In terms of international flavor, Mubtaahij and the Kentucky Derby seem made for each other.
Intrigue abounds about Mubtaahij (pronounced Moob-tah-heej), the Irish-born son of Dubawi owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum and trained by South African Mike de Kock. Not just because he is all things international – he’ll race beneath Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon – but Churchill Downs will be Mubtaahij’s debut on American soil.
If that’s not enough, in addition to being the horse’s longest distance so far, the 1 1/4-mile Derby also features the most competitors (19) he’ll face.
”A few mint juleps might help,” de Kock joked Tuesday about the challenge ahead.
Good line, but a few of the Derby’s signature cocktails couldn’t hurt.
Wednesday’s post-position draw will determine where Mubtaahij will start, and the hope is a performance that ends with a crash course learning ”My Old Kentucky Home” in the winner’s circle.
Mubtaahij has provided plenty of toasting opportunities back in Dubai.
He has four wins and a second-place finish in his last five races in Dubai after starting his career with a pair of also-ran showings in Great Britain.
His eight-length victory over 1 3/16 miles in the 10-horse UAE Derby in March earned 100 Derby qualifying points and sixth place in the standings. The Grade 2 victory symbolized the comfort zone Mubtaahij found at the palatial Meydan Racecourse in the United Arab Emarites and convinced de Kock and the connections to seek racing’s holy grail.
De Kock has succeeded in limited chances on North American soil, winning the 2000 Skip Away Stakes with Horse Chestnut and finishing second in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Turf with Eagle Mountain.
Churchill Downs is a different place, and earning the blanket of roses won’t be easy in a full Derby field where International Star, Dortmund, Carpe Diem, American Pharoah and Frosted stand ahead of Mubtaahij, who’s tied with Materiality in points.
”I think the cream gets settled in the early part of the race most of the time,” de Kock said. ”If he can deal with that first 400 to 600 meters of frenzy, he’ll be all right.”
So far, Mubtaahij appears none the worse for wear after his long trip earlier this month from the UAE through Amsterdam to Arlington Park near Chicago for quarantine and training. He arrived at Churchill Downs on Monday evening and worked out briefly Tuesday morning.
De Kock had planned a short stay there before shipping Mubtaahij to a training center in Kentucky. The horse ended up staying for the duration and trained on the track’s synthetic Polytrack surface.
”He seemed settled (after) two days of quarantine,” said de Kock, who also changed the horse’s diet to meet U.S. criteria. ”It seems to have worked out for the better.”
Despite the upheaval in routine, one constant has been the absence of Lasix, the diuretic commonly administered to many American race horses and considered a performance enhancer. Mubtaahij, however, hasn’t shown bleeding tendencies and de Kock’s questions about speed benefits of the drug indicates he’s not inclined to start administering it now.
That positions the horse to be the Derby’s first Lasix-free starter in a decade, and possibly the first winner to not use the drug since Grindstone in 1996. And if Mubtaahij’s introduction to Churchill Downs offered any indication, he might not need help.
The colt took well to the dirt as he jogged one lap and cantered another with exercise ride Lisa Moncrieff. While additional light work lies ahead for Mubtaahij, his short yet promising resume’ has put him on the cusp of an international breakthrough his trainer is still trying to grasp.
”From afar, the thought of actually having a runner wasn’t really a thought because I didn’t think it could happen,” de Kock said. ”Not in your wildest dreams did you think that you would buy a European horse good enough to come across and compete here. … Having one of the 20 good enough to run is a satisfying feeling.”