Dubai's best chance to party

He was a seven-figure sale topper, purchased by one of the most powerful entities in the world. He has posted two impressive starts this year, but his Kentucky Derby hopes likely hinge on the performance he needs to give on Saturday.

No, it isn't Dunkirk.

It is Desert Party, and this weekend he will be blissfully unaware of the enormous hopes riding on his sleek bay shoulders.

Hours before the Grade I Florida Derby takes place at Gulfstream Park Saturday, Godolphin Racing's Desert Party will attempt to keep one of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's longest-running dreams alive when he faces 12 rivals in the $2 million UAE Derby at Nad Al Sheba.

Owning a Kentucky Derby winner is about the only thing Sheikh Mohammed has not accomplished in Thoroughbred racing, and at the start of the year it appeared the ruler of Dubai was loaded for bear with regards to the American classic.

But after 2-year-old champion Midshipman was sidelined because of injury and multiple Grade I winner Vineyard Haven — whom Godolphin purchased privately for a reported $12 million — faltered in the UAE 2000 Guineas, the horse some considered to be the stable's third-stringer emerged as the leading candidate to bring the roses to the desert.

A winner of the Grade II Sanford Stakes at Saratoga last July, Desert Party has thrived since arriving in Dubai.

The bay colt, who was purchased for $2.1 million at the 2008 Fasig-Tipton Florida select 2-year-olds in training sale, won his 3-year-old debut by half a length in January before soundly defeating Vineyard Haven and Regal Ransom in the UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 12.

"We're very excited about Desert Party," Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin, said this week. "He has got the right frame of mind and the right profile. He is really professional and when you are in the level that we are about to start asking him to play at, you have to have that."

Desert Party's mere presence in the Kentucky Derby would provide a bit of a salve. His sire, Street Cry, was Godolphin's leading Derby contender in 2001 but had to miss the first leg of the Triple Crown because of injury.

"He reminds me of his sire, Street Cry," said Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor. "He is doing really well and showing good form. He is more relaxed now and is working very well."

This weekend's Kentucky Derby preps could be a banner showcase for former sale toppers. Dunkirk — the $3.7 million purchase at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale — tests stakes company for the first time in the 11⁄8-mile Florida Derby.

Despite having just two career starts to his credit, the Coolmore-owned son of Unbridled's Song has jockey Garrett Gomez flying in from California and was made the 9-5 morning-line favorite over Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Quality Road.

"Obviously, coming out of the Florida Derby we'll know a lot more, but at this stage of the game we feel like that he's... the strongest candidate that we've had (for the Kentucky Derby)," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "That's in terms of a horse that has a tremendous amount of ability and has the pedigree and style in which ... we feel like he will carry it a mile and a quarter."

Big Drama was expected to be a top Derby contender after winning the $750,000 Delta Jackpot in early December, but a bruised foot and other minor setbacks have delayed his season debut until Saturday's Grade II Swale Stakes going seven furlongs at Gulfstream.

The chief threat to Big Drama will likely be This Ones for Phil, who won the Sunshine Millions Dash on Jan. 24 but disappointed last time out when he ran fifth behind Quality Road in the Fountain of Youth.