FOR many the real action of the UAE season begins in the New Year and at Meydan on Thursday evening, the first UAE fixture of 2021, the racing highlight was actually not for thoroughbreds, but rather was provided by the only purebred Arabian race on the card, the one-mile Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge R1.
It was won in determined fashion by Brraq, partnered by Adrie de Vries, and the eight-year-old entire swooped down the outside to grab the initiative over a furlong out. Homebred by Yas Racing, Brraq was providing a dream first UAE winner, after 13 previous attempts, for Frenchman Jean-Claude Pecout who trains on the racecourse at Al Ain.
The highlight of the five thoroughbred races was the UAE 1000 Guineas Trial, a seven-furlong conditions race for three-year-old fillies. It turned out to be a Godolphin and Saeed bin Suroor benefit, the trainer saddling the first three finishers. A furlong and a half from home Pat Cosgrave and Soft Whisper took up the running, set sail for home, and soon had the race in safe keeping.
A daughter of Dubawi, and the first winner for her Sea The Stars half-sister to the Irish-based sire Policy Maker, Soft Whisper raced four times in England last year, losing her maiden tag at the third attempt in a mile nursery at Salisbury before following up in a similar contest at Pontefract.
Cosgrave said: “She took a bit of time to get her act together, but has improved from each race and that was a good prep. The mile will suit her better and she will have learned plenty, having had some dirt kicked at her. I could not pull her up which bodes well, not only for the UAE 1000 Guineas but hopefully the UAE Oaks as well.”
Ten went to post for the six-furlong dirt handicap, and there was little separating the first six home. A furlong out the Irish-bred Taamol and Connor Beasley grabbed the initiative and held on gamely to repel all challengers. A seven-year-old gelded son of Helmet, Taamol was bred by Derek Gibbons, his late mother Ann, and Tomas Kerin.
Trained by Ali Rashid Al Rayhi for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Taamol was registering his sixth career victory, his fourth in the UAE, but just second on dirt. He had a good season last year, completing the Listed National Day and HH The President Cup double on the Abu Dhabi turf.
Al Rayhi said: “This is a real favourite horse in the yard because he is tough, versatile and generally consistent. They went quick today which has helped him because he stays a mile.”
While the first Meydan turf race of the season, a handicap over nine furlongs, looked competitive on paper, it was won emphatically by the Victor Stud Bloodstock and Brendan Cummins-bred Eqtiraan. Another seven-year-old gelding by Helmet, Eqtiraan was sent straight to the front by Connor Beasley, allowed to set a modest gallop, kicked clear at the top of the straight and was soon clear. The win completed doubles for the jockey, Al Rayhi and Sheikh Hamdan.
Eqtiraan was registering a first UAE victory, after 15 previous attempts, and his first since landing the Listed Cathedral Stakes over six furlongs at Salisbury in June 2017 when trained by Richard Hannon. The winning jockey said: “To be honest I thought I would be challenged for the lead, but I was able to set the pace to suit myself and, when I asked him, he really picked up nicely. In fairness to the horse he was not stopping, and has seemed to really enjoy himself out in front.”
A mile dirt handicap developed into a duel from halfway, with Alkaamel making a gallant effort to make every post a winning one, but he was headed about a furlong and a half from home by the Knocktoran Stud-bred Hypothetical who stayed on strongly to make a winning local debut. It was a first winner of the season, at just the second attempt, for Mickael Barzalona, riding for his main employer Salem bin Ghadayer and the trainer’s principal owner, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum.
A four-year-old Lope De Vega colt out of a group-placed half-sister to French 1000 Guineas winner Precieuse, the 550,000gns yearling purchase ran four times in Britain for John Gosden, making a winning debut as a juvenile over a mile on the all-weather at Chelmsford in December 2019. Barzalona said: “I was really impressed because he is still young and immature. He travelled nicely and stayed on well. I think we will stay at this trip before trying him at 10 furlongs.”
Back on the turf, the concluding five-furlong handicap provided the opportunity for Sheikh Hamdan and Al Rayhi to complete trebles, this time combining with Sandro Paiva who produced Etisalat to lead in the final half a furlong.
A six-year-old Lethal Force gelding who has inherited his sire’s grey colouring, it was a fourth career success for the horse who had never before won on the surface or run over the trip. His previous successes were registered on the dirt at Al Ain and the all-weather at Kempton and Chelmsford.
The quality of the card was deeply afected by the withdrawal of all the Doug Watson-trained runners when a number of his staff tested posiive for Covid.