Kentucky Derby

Godolphin going all out

It has been a most elusive goal for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, one of the few things that has escaped the man who, quite literally, has it all.

But to say a main objective for the ruler of Dubai is to one day win the Kentucky Derby would only be telling half the story.

Because as much as Sheikh Mohammed wants to claim the roses, he wants most of all to do it his way.

After taking a seven-year break from starting a horse in the Kentucky Derby, Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing appears to be making its strongest assault ever on Thoroughbred racing's most famous race.

In addition to owning Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and newly minted 2-year-old champion Midshipman, Sheikh Mohammed also has two-time Grade I winner Vineyard Haven, Grade II winner Desert Party and the talented Jose Adan in his lineup of Derby prospects this season.

Although all of his top horses established themselves in the United States, all four were also subsequently shipped off to Dubai to prep for a possible return in the American classics.

While such a technique has yet to pay off — Godolphin's best Derby finish in five tries was a sixth-place run by China Visit in 2000 — Sheikh Mohammed's decisions are not simply rooted in stubbornness.

"Probably people don't understand the reasoning behind it," Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin, said via phone from Dubai. "Sheikh Mohammed is the ruler of the country and he likes to be involved in the decision-making process and is very hands on with their preparation. Also we do have outstanding facilities which are fantastic for the horses.

"Obviously it is a big challenge, but the bigger the challenge the more exciting it is for him."

To make such a young horse endure the demands of that travel is asking a lot. Then again, none of the horses Godolphin has sent to the Kentucky Derby has ever had the foundation and quality of the current group.

Midshipman, who Sheikh Mohammed acquired when he purchased virtually the entire Stonerside operation from Bob McNair last season, captured the Grade I Del Mar Futurity last September two starts prior to his 11/4-length triumph in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.

Although Midshipman beat Vineyard Haven for the Eclipse Award, the latter delivered two of the more awe-inspiring efforts last fall.

The son of Lido Palace won the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and then effortlessly captured the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont in a performance that prompted Sheikh Mohammed to purchase him privately for a reported $12 million.

Vineyard Haven's only loss, ironically, came at the hands of Desert Party, who defeated him in the Grade II Sanford Stakes and was also purchased privately by Sheikh Mohammed.

"There is no doubt these are far and away the best quality horses he's had," Crisford said. "Really if you look at the horses we've raced in the Derby in previous years... none of them have really had the level of form that is required to win a race like that.

"You need to have proven form and these horses have had 2-year-old careers that were top-notch."

While even Crisford acknowledged the strain that comes with shipping halfway across the world, he is quick to remind critics that Godolphin has made a career out of pulling off such a feat.

"I think the shipping is difficult but we've had 146 Grade I winners all around the world. So the point is it can be done," he said. "We've done it with lots of other races so there's no reason we can't do it with the Derby. We've got the horses we hope will be good enough."

Desert Party won an allowance race in Dubai on Jan. 22 and could line up against Vineyard Haven in the UAE 2000 Guineas next week, but Midshipman is not slated to have his first start until early March, according to Crisford.

Midshipman has also yet to start over a dirt surface, but Crisford does not foresee the son of Unbridled's Song having any difficulty making the switch.

"He is bred to be a dirt horse and there is no reason why he shouldn't be able (to make the switch)," Crisford said. "We'll find out for sure when he runs but we don't think it will be a big deal."

It will be a monumental deal, however, if this is the year the royal blue silks of Godolphin find themselves in the winner's circle come the first Saturday of May.

"Godolphin is Dubai," John Ferguson, bloodstock adviser for Sheikh Mohammed, said after the Breeders' Cup. "And his people follow Godolphin the way people in New York follow the Yankees."