Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
This week we take a closer look at Thunder Snow, winner of the Group 2, $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by the Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group on March 25 at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
For many U.S. racing fans, the least recognizable horse targeting the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands very likely will be Thunder Snow, because he punched his ticket to the Derby in Dubai.
Thunder Snow was bred in Ireland by an Australian sire and spent his 2-year-old season based in England racing on the grass. He’s now the points leader on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, so let’s take a closer look at this Derby hopeful.
Ability: Thunder Snow made his first five starts in England, winning his debut going three-quarters of a mile on the grass and then competing in four straight group stakes. He finished second in the Group 2 Qatar Vintage Stakes at Goodwood and then was runner-up by a head in the Group 2 At the Races Champagne Stakes.
After finishing fourth, beaten by only two lengths, in his first attempt in a Group 1 race in October at Newmarket, Thunder Snow was shipped to France, where he powered to a breakthrough, five-length runaway win in the Group 1 Criterium International in his final start as a juvenile.
Owned and bred by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, it was no surprise that this promising Group 1 winner was sent to the Middle East to target the United Arab Emirates Derby. But it was a bit of a surprise how well he handled the transition to dirt in his first attempt, turning aside a challenge at the top of the stretch in the United Arab Emirates Two Thousand Guineas and accelerating clear to win by 5 ¾ lengths. He was much the best in the race but never changed leads in the stretch in his first start on the dirt.
Thunder Snow again showed some immaturity in the stretch of the United Arab Emirates Derby. He changed leads a couple of times, ducked out and then veered back in, but he was both talented and determined enough to push his nose in front of runner-up Epicharis, a highly regarded multiple stakes winner in Japan who previously was undefeated.
Those antics won’t cut it in the Kentucky Derby, but Thunder Snow’s talent is apparent.
Thunder Snow faces the significant hurdle in a journey of about 7,375 miles to the U.S., plus quarantine restrictions, adapting to a new climate and acclimating to a new racetrack.
History also is not on Thunder Snow’s side as no UAE Derby winner or competitor has ever finished better than fifth in the Kentucky Derby (UAE Derby runner-up Master of Hounds was fifth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby). UAE Derby runners are 0-for-12 in the first jewel of the Triple Crown since the race’s inception in 2000.
Running style: Thunder Snow had enough speed to race near the pace in both the UAE Two Thousand Guineas and the UAE Derby, placing him and jockey Christophe Soumillon in perfect stalking position to launch a winning rally near the top of the stretch. One potential issue is that the pace should be significantly faster in the Kentucky Derby than Thunder Snow has faced in Dubai in his two races on dirt. There also will be more competition for that prime real estate just off the pace in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Connections: Godolphin Racing is the international racing operation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. His passion for racing was sparked by a trip to England in May 1967 when he watched five classic races with his brother Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum.
Sheikh Mohammed won his first race in 1977 with the filly Hatta and founded Godolphin in 1994 as “an expression of his lifelong passion for horses and racing.”
Godolphin has won virtually every major race in Europe through the years and has won the Dubai World Cup eight times, most recently with Prince Bishop in 2015.
Godolphin won Eclipse Awards as outstanding owner in 2009 and 2012, and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley U.S. operation was named co-outstanding owner in 2006 (with Lael Stables) and outstanding breeder in 2012.
Sheikh Mohammed’s lone success in the U.S. Triple Crown came in the 2006 Preakness Stakes with Bernardini.
United Arab Emirates native Saeed bin Suroor has trained for Godolphin Racing since 1995 and consistently ranks as one of the top trainers in the Europe. He has saddled 12 British classic winners and a record seven Dubai World Cup winners. He is winless with seven Kentucky Derby starters.
French champion jockey Christophe Soumillon has been aboard Thunder Snow for his last three races. A two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner who has won classic races in France, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Dubai, Soumillon finished eighth aboard Mubtaahij with his only previous Kentucky Derby starter. He won the 2005 John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf with Shirocco.
Pedigree: At first glance, Thunder Snow’s pedigree looks like that of a racehorse whose best surface would be grass. Indeed, his sire, Helmet, was a three-time Group 1 winner on the turf who finished 12th of 14 in the 2012 UAE Derby in his only race on the main track. Likewise, almost all of the stakes winners on the bottom half of this pedigree came in races on the grass. But now that Thunder Snow has shown twice that he is quite capable on a dirt main track, let’s take a look at this pedigree as it pertains to class and stamina.
Helmet’s three Group 1 wins came at about a mile (1,600 meters) once and at about seven-eighths of a mile (1,400 meters) twice. In the longest race of his career going 2,040 meters (a little more than 1 ¼ miles) for the 2012 Tatts W.S. Cox Plate, Helmet finished eighth, but he was beaten by only four lengths in the 14-horse field. Thunder Snow is one of three group/graded stakes winners to date from Helmet’s three crops of racing age.
The bottom half of Thunder Snow’s pedigree provides a nice boost of both stamina and class. His dam (mother), Eastern Joy, was a winner at about 1 1/8 miles and has produced four stakes winners from four starters. In addition to Thunder Snow, Eastern Joy has produced group stakes winners Ihtimal and First Victory and multiple Group 1-placed stakes winner Always Smile. Ihtimal was a winner at about 1 3/16 miles and finished third in the 2014 QIPCO One Thousand Guineas.
Eastern Joy is a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to 2007 French Oaks winner West Wind and two other stakes winners.
Thunder Snow’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Red Slippers, was a Group 2 stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles and is a three-quarter sister to 1994 English Oaks winner and European champion 3-year-old filly Balanchine.
From a pedigree perspective, Thunder Snow appears to boast the speed, stamina and class to warrant consideration in the Kentucky Derby. However, shipping from Dubai to Central Kentucky, a touch of immaturity, acclimating to a new racetrack and climate, dealing with a faster pace and bucking UAE Derby history provide significant obstacles.
I’m intrigued enough by Thunder Snow to use him to spice up my trifecta tickets, especially if he’s a huge price, but he will not be my pick to with the 2017 Run for the Roses.