Facing local 'uncertainty,' O'Neill confirms Dubai string of horses

By Tom Pedulla/Special to HRN
December 12, 2019 11:29am

Trainer Doug O’Neill, pointing to issues surrounding the racing industry in his home state of California, is set to make an unprecedented foray to the Dubai World Cup Carnival.

Although American trainers have sent horses to compete in the Carnival before, O’Neill would be the first to shift such a significant part of his stable there. Of his formidable 85-horse operation, 17 runners are scheduled to journey to Dubai on Jan. 15. They will be overseen on a daily basis by top assistant Leandro Mora.

The Carnival, which carries $12.74 million in purses, is comprised of nine consecutive Thursday programs that extend from Jan. 2 through Feb. 27. Then comes $2.7 million Super Saturday on March 7 and the $35 million Dubai World Cup on March 28.

O’Neill indicated he felt his hand was somewhat forced in his decision to look for lucrative races at Meydan Racecourse. “Southern California is my home and I’m so grateful and blessed to be part of the racing community here,” he said. “But there is a lot of uncertainty here.”

Equine fatalities, primarily at Santa Anita, have placed the racing industry under intense scrutiny and exerted equally intense pressure to overhaul the game. Issues range from racing surfaces to race-day medication to the use of whips.

O’Neill noted that his stable is 15 or 20 horses short of its usual level, and “the motivation for a lot of horse owners is kind of down right now.”

The more O’Neill looked for places to run beyond California, the more appealing Dubai became.

“We’ve had a bunch of runners over there and won there before. Everything is first class. They really roll out the red carpet,” said the veteran trainer, who counts two Kentucky Derby wins among his career highlights. “You’re proud to be part of the game over there.”

The 5-year-old Pavel, fourth in the Dubai World Cup both of the last two years, and Landeskog, a seemingly improving 3-year-old sprinter that placed second in the Sept. 21 Gallant Bob Stakes (G2) at Parx Racing in his most recent start, are set to head the 17-horse contingent.

“I’m not really looking at it that we are going to go over there and win every race. I’m not even really looking at it from a monetary standpoint,” O’Neill said. “It’s a great opportunity. There is a place for these horses to run and compete against top competition, and that’s what it’s about.”

Last year’s results suggest there is some advantage to giving horses time to acclimate to Dubai and travel over the Meydan surface. Super Saturday produced three of the nine winners on Dubai World Cup night, an annual prime target for top trainers and owners from around the world.

Without getting into specifics, O’Neill acknowledged that the Dubai Racing Club will assist with expenses, as it has done for others in the past.

“It’s really just a matter of what we end up bringing. We are still a month out,” O’Neill noted. “They’ve been great to work with. As much as I keep thanking them for the opportunity, they are grateful that we have horses we are sending over. Hopefully, it will be a win-win and we can be competitive at a high level over there.”

Trainer Ken McPeek had similar hopes when he sent a four-horse string to Dubai last winter. He came away without a victory. Three of the four horses fared so poorly that they returned to the U.S. ahead of schedule.

While McPeek praised the accommodations and hospitality, he believes his horses were assigned more weight than was appropriate.

“They may have so much respect for American dirt horses that I think handicappers are almost scared of them,” McPeek said. “The way they weighted our horses, it was too much. It was frustrating because at times we were carrying 8, 10, 12 pounds more than any other horse in the race.”

McPeek went on: “Maybe I didn’t take the right horses, but I did think the horses I took were given too much weight to handle. For whatever reason, it didn’t work for me. Maybe we’ll go back another day. But for this year, we’re focused on domestic racing.”

O’Neill is approaching his attempt with an open mind and a perceptible level of excitement, believing he may be able to show fellow trainers what is possible.

“Hopefully, we can be the eyes and ears and maybe spread the word,” he said. “Hopefully, there can be more barns like us in the future.”


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