With Godolphin's long list of accomplished runners, respect is hard-earned.
But 2018 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline winner Thunder Snow will have an opportunity March 30 to own a unique slot on Sheikh Mohammed's considerable international roster as he tries to become the first two-time winner of the $12 million race contested at 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) on the dirt.
"He's always tough and no horse has won this race twice," said trainer Saeed bin Suroor. "It would be good to see him win for the second year. He's always tried. We've seen him in America, seen him in Europe and Dubai."
To reach that accomplishment his connections know he'll face an obstacle from the gate in starting from post 12. The Dubai World Cup draw features a random selection of horses and as each horse is selected, a connection selects a post position. There was no home track advantage for Thunder Snow, who was selected second-last and bin Suroor chose post 12 from the two remaining: 12 and 13. He made no effort to sugar coat the post position.
"It is not easy, that's the truth. Last year Christophe (Soumillon) gave him a good ride, pushed him all the way to be close to the rail. I hope this can happen again this year," said bin Suroor. "The horse has come back well from his last race and has worked well."
The 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands has proven an outlier for the 5-year-old son of Helmet, who has risen to nearly every other challenge. Not liking the wet-fast track at Churchill Downs that day, Thunder Snow was pulled up after bucking and hopping early in the race.
Other than that effort, Thunder Snow has impressed with his consistency: winning a Group 1 race on the turf in France at 2, winning the UAE Derby Sponsored by the Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group at 3, and taking last year's Dubai World Cup in a career in which he's won six group stakes.
Thunder Snow made some amends for his Derby run with a solid third-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill. In his first start since that Nov. 3 outing, Thunder Snow finished second to fellow Dubai World Cup runner Capezzano in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 Sponsored by Emirates Airline March 9 at Meydan. Thunder Snow likely needed that race ahead of his Dubai World Cup defense.
"If he jumps well and finds a nice position, he'll have a chance to run another big race," Suroor said.
While Thunder Snow aims to make history, Ramzan Kadyrov's North America will try to make amends. Last year a slow start in the Dubai World Cup cost the front-running North America any chance as he finished 10th, and one year later trainer Satish Seemar is still second-guessing himself about that race.
"What happened last year will never leave me for the rest of my life," Seemar said. "I'll always blame myself. I should have had a person in the gate holding him. I should have known about the sound."
Seemar said last year North America would wear ear plugs that would be taken out before a race. Under that scenario, he won the 2018 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 by five lengths over Thunder Snow. But World Cup Day would prove a different environment.
"As you know the mile-and-a-quarter gate placement is right in front of the big screen, surrounded by the two most powerful speakers you'll ever know," Seemar said. "The World Cup day was a different sound, different crowd, different noise."
This year the ear plugs have been retired and North America has adjusted, winning Round 1 and Round 2 of the Maktoum Challenge by a combined 11 ¼ lengths in his two Dubai World Cup preps. Seemar liked what he saw on the track and in the paddock.
"I walked around with him in the paddock and luckily that day they were blasting the hell out of the speakers—it even scared me," Seemar said. "But he was cool and calm. It was a good test. We didn't ask for it but it happened. Nothing bothered him."
Another good sign for North America's connections came Wednesday at the draw where they earned first choice, with Seemar choosing post 3.
Five United States-trained horses will take their best shot Saturday, including Charles Fipke homebred Seeking the Soul, who enters off a runner-up finish to City of Light in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park. He also posted a runner-up finish to that same rival in the 2018 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
"We think we're going to run well in just a great group of horses," said trainer Dallas Stewart, who earlier noted his horse's comfort level in top races. "He was second in the Breeders' Cup and second in the Pegasus, so he has the credentials to be here. I think he has a heck of the shot."
Trainer Todd Pletcher is hoping for a turnaround in form from China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm's Audible, winner of the 2018 Xpressbet Florida Derby. This season Audible finished off the board in the Pegasus and second in the Harlan's Holiday Stakes at Gulfstream but both of those efforts were on off tracks.
"The one thing we felt like after evaluating the Harlan's Holiday and the Pegasus, talking to the riders, both Javier (Castellano) and Flavien (Prat), they felt like he tolerated the sloppy conditions, but didn't really enjoy them," Pletcher said. "So I think that compromised his finish a little bit in both races. The track on Pegasus day definitely was a track where you wanted to be inside if you could. From his post, he was never really able to work himself inside. I thought, despite that, he tried hard and ran a credible race."
That same Triple Crown-winning ownership group will send out Yoshida, a Grade 1 winner on turf and dirt. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said the son of Heart's Cry is built like a dirt horse. Yoshida won last year's Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets by two lengths at Saratoga Race Course.
"When he won the Grade 1 on the dirt at Saratoga, he showed a tremendous turn of foot in the last quarter-mile," Mott said. "He's a big, hearty horse who gets over the dirt very well."
Last year's Stephen Foster Handicap winner Pavel will try for the second top-level win of his career for owner Reddam Racing. The 5-year-old son of Creative Cause ran well in last year's World Cup, finishing fourth.
The lone member of the U.S.-trained horses without a top-level win is Margoth's Gunnevera, but the late-running 5-year-old son of Dialed In has placed in five Grade 1 races.
Amer Abdulaziz's Phoenix Thoroughbreds will send out a pair of runners who have competed in the U.S. in Grownkowski, who finished second to Triple Crown winner Justify in last year's Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets; and 2018 Indiana Derby winner Axelrod. Abdulaziz said if Gronkowski can replicate his Belmont form, the son of Lonhro should be right there Saturday.