They are thousands of miles from home, strangers in a strange land, trying to adapt to an environment unlike any they will probably see elsewhere.
Saturday's Dubai World Cup card might be the ultimate road trip for the American-based horses slated to compete in the world's richest race. But if history is an indicator, it is the competitors lining up against the U.S. contingent who will be at the distinct disadvantage.
While the creation and development of the Dubai World Cup has been among the great sources of pride for ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the 11/4-mile test has been a repeated source of glory for North America with U.S.-based horses winning eight of the previous 14 runnings.
Though this year's World Cup features a number of new variables, including a record $10 million and its first synthetic surface at the glittering Meydan Racecourse, the trend of American domination is not expected to end thanks to a trio of top contenders.
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Leading the American-based lineup for the World Cup is four-time Grade I winner Gio Ponti, the Castleton Lyons homebred who was named both champion older male and champion turf male for 2009.
The son of Tale of the Cat drew post-position four in the 14-horse field and is the expected favorite to add the $6 million first-place prize money to his already lofty bankroll of more than $3.1 million.
Gio Ponti has earned all of his Grade I wins on turf, but — like many grass horses — the 5-year-old has proven just as formidable over synthetic tracks, as evidenced by his runner-up finish behind champion Zenyatta in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface in November.
Since shipping to Dubai following his narrow loss to veteran Karelian in the Tampa Bay Stakes in February, Gio Ponti's physical condition has reportedly improved each day. The only question mark for his connections is how the bay horse will handle the controlled chaos of race day.
"Everything is 100 percent," trainer Christophe Clement said. "I just wish he was a little more settled mentally. Everything is still a little bit new to him here and he is looking around. But he's training well and he's looking well. We just need to be lucky now."
Trainer Bob Baffert has enjoyed his share of World Cup luck, saddling Silver Charm (1998) and Captain Steve (2001) to their victories in the race. Though he won't be in attendance Saturday, the Hall of Famer will seek his third World Cup win with Grade I winner Richard's Kid.
Richard's Kid was purchased earlier this year by Sheikh Mohammed's son, Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed al Maktoum, and won the Grade II San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 7 in his first start for his new connections.
The late-running son of Lemon Drop Kid will break from post position 10.
One of the most indelible images in Dubai World Cup history is the sight of Nicholasville-based owner Ken Ramsey jubilantly leading his charge Roses in May into the winner's circle in 2005. Ramsey hopes to relive that scene when he sends out Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Furthest Land, a former claimer who has now earned nearly $900,000.
"He's a rags to riches horse and now we're focused on racing's greatest riches," Ramsey exclaimed. "For me winning a second World Cup would be just as special as the Kentucky Derby. I haven't won the Derby, but I can only imagine."
Other American-based horses scheduled to run on the Dubai World Cup card include Presious Passion (Dubai Sheema Classic), Take the Points (Dubai Duty Free), Courageous Cat (Dubai Duty Free), the Unusual Q.T. (Dubai Duty Free), Kinsale King (Dubai Golden Shaheen), and California Flag (Al Quoz Sprint).