Will a Japanese Raider Win the UAE Derby?

Combustion exercises in preparation for the $1 million UAE Derby Saturday at Meydan. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Have you seen the field for Saturday’s $1 million Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai? If there’s a more competitive race taking place anywhere in the world this weekend, I’m not sure which it would be.

The UAE Derby looks like a challenge to handicap. Held at 1,900 meters (about 1 3/16 miles), the UAE Derby has drawn 16 entrants from around the globe. Horses exiting races in Argentina, Dubai, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are set to square off, and the prize (in addition to the rich purse) is 170 Road to the Kentucky Derby qualification points split on a 100-40-20-10 scale among the top four finishers.

Where do we begin in analyzing such a global event? The morning-line odds indicate #11 Pinehurst is the one to beat. The Bob Baffert trainee started his career in fine fashion last summer, winning his debut at Del Mar before romping to a 4 1/2-length victory in the Grade 1 Runhappy Del Mar Futurity on the same track.

Television schedule

Thursday, March 24: 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Friday, March 25: 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS2; post time varies on TVG

Saturday, March 26: Dubai World Cup coverage 8 a.m.-1 p.m. on FS2; 1 p.m.-7 p.m. on FS2; 6 p.m.-7 p.m. on CNBC; post time varies on TVG

Sunday, March 27: 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on FS1; post time varies on TVG

Pinehurst concluded his 2-year-old season with a subpar fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, but he’s bounced back strongly this year. After finishing second in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes (beaten only by next-out Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes winner Forbidden Kingdom), Pinehurst traveled to the Middle East for the $1.5 million, Group 3 Saudi Derby in Saudi Arabia. Putting his tactical speed to good use, Pinehurst was always prominent and found just enough stamina down the stretch to hold off #13 Sekifu and win by half a length.

Clearly, Pinehurst has speed and talent. But can he handle the 1 3/16-mile distance of the UAE Derby? Pinehurst has done his best running in one-turn races, with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile marking his lone effort around two turns. Pinehurst was all-out to hang on at 1,600 meters (about one mile) in the Saudi Derby, and he’ll be racing 300 meters farther on Saturday. The longer distance is a definite question mark for an otherwise formidable favorite.

So who can catch Pinehurst in the stretch? The above-mentioned Sekifu is an option. The Triple Crown nominee was bred in Japan and raced there prior to the Saudi Derby, including a victory in a strong renewal of the Hyogo Junior Grand Prix as a juvenile.

Sekifu kicked off his 3-year-old campaign in the Saudi Derby, where he charged furiously down the stretch to fall half a length short of Pinehurst. Sekifu was full of run and gave the impression he would have caught Pinehurst in a few more strides, so the longer distance of the Saudi Derby can potentially tip the scales in Sekifu’s favor.

Fellow Japanese raider #6 Combustion is another logical contender. Owned by the powerful Godolphin stable (which has won the UAE Derby a record nine times), Combustion finished just a neck behind Sekifu when second in the Hyogo Junior Grand Prix. Combustion also finished second in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby last December.

Speaking of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, Combustion won the latest installment of the series, parlaying a ground-saving trip into a neck victory in the Feb. 20 Hyacinth Stakes racing 1,600 meters at Tokyo Racecourse. With this positive prep run under his belt, Combustion should be poised for a peak showing in the UAE Derby. It’s worth noting jockey William Buick, who won the 2021 UAE Derby aboard Godolphin’s Rebel’s Romance, will ride Combustion on Saturday.

Among the local runners, #4 Azure Coast is very likely the best. The undefeated colt boasts a perfect 3-for-3 resume highlighted by a two-length score in the Group 3 United Arab Emirates Two Thousand Guineas going one mile at Meydan last month. Azure Coast had little trouble beating #2 Keifer and #3 Quality Boone, and while the competition is deeper in the UAE Derby, Azure Coast still has upside and can’t be dismissed from consideration.

#9 Gilded Age, shipping in from the U.S. off a solid third-place finish in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes running 1 1/8 miles, has a strong late rally and a beautiful pedigree geared toward improvement at long distances. He should be finishing strongly.

Meanwhile, #12 Reiwa Homare is a longshot with encouraging credentials. The Japanese challenger was beaten by just a head by Sekifu in the Nadeshiko Sho allowance in October, and while Reiwa Homare hasn’t run since, it’s encouraging to see Japan’s top jockey Christophe Lemaire picking up the mount. If Reiwa Homare is ready to roll off the layoff, he has the form lines to factor in the UAE Derby.

So how do we take all of these opinions and turn them into betting strategies? We’ll start by favoring Combustion and Sekifu on top of our tickets, counting on one or the other to prevail. We’ll try to beat Pinehurst over the longer distance, mixing and matching him with Azure Coast, Gilded Age, and Reiwa Homare in various combinations of exacta and trifecta tickets.

Wagering Strategy on a $24 Budget

$4 exacta: 6,13 with 4,6,11,13 ($24)

What to say at the betting window: Meydan (or Dubai Racing), 5th race, $4 exacta 6,13 with 4,6,11,13

Wagering Strategy on a $48 Budget

$4 exacta: 6,13 with 4,6,11,13 ($24)

What to say at the betting window: Meydan (or Dubai Racing), 5th race, $4 exacta 6,13 with 4,6,11,13

$1 trifecta: 6,13 with 4,6,11,13 with 4,6,9,11,12,13 ($24)

What to say at the betting window: Meydan (or Dubai Racing), 5th race, $1 trifecta 6,13 with 4,6,11,13 with 4,6,9,11,12,13

Good luck, and enjoy the race!

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