LOUISVILLE — Welcome back.
From 1999 through 2002, Godolphin Racing took four straight unsuccessful shots at achieving Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's goal of winning the Kentucky Derby, leaving the Ruler of Dubai to vow he would keep coming back until he won the sport's most prestigious race.
Then six Derbys passed without a Godolphin runner.
Now, they're back.
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"I think what we have this year is much better than what we saw in the past," said Saeed bin Suroor, Godolphin's 43-year-old trainer.
It was Saturday morning, just after Desert Party, the second of his two Derby probables, had worked 5 furlongs in :593⁄5. About two hours earlier, Regal Ransom had turned in a bullet work of :591⁄5 over the same distance.
"They're traveling very well from Dubai," said an obviously happy bin Suroor.
No one doubts Sheik Mohammed's commitment to the Thoroughbred industry. But many question his philosophy of purchasing American horses, and returning them to his home country before shipping them to Louisville for the first Saturday in May, with little to show for it.
Godolphin made its Derby debut in 1999, only to see Worldly Manner finish seventh. The stable's double shot of China Visit and Curule ran sixth and seventh, respectively, in 2000. Express Tour ran eighth in 2001. Essence of Dubai, a $2.3 million Sheik Mohammed purchase, ran ninth in 2002.
In 2005, when Godolphin was prepping Blues and Royal for a possible trip to Louisville, racing legend Andy Beyer wrote, "the colt's chances of earning a blanket of roses on May 7 are negligible, for he is likely to be doomed by the arrogance and poor judgement of his owner."
This year, however, bin Suroor believes his stock is different.
"At least they have three runs in Dubai," said the trainer on Saturday. "They are going to the race with no excuse. Evidence, so far, they've done really good. Based off their works today, very good times. That makes me really happy with them. Just we need luck."
Sheik Mohammed hasn't had the best luck. He purchased Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman in the Bob McNair dispersal sale, only to see the 3-year-old drop off the Derby trail in February with a foreleg injury. Sheik Mohammed also paid $12 million last November for Vineyard Haven, only to see the Hopeful and Champagne winner run poorly in Dubai.
Regal Ransom has run well, winning the UAE Derby last time out. The son of Distorted Humor, sire of 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, ran eighth in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita before being shipped for his three races in Dubai.
But many say Desert Party is Godolphin's best shot. The son of Street Cry was a $2.1 million Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-olds in training purchase. He won the Sanford at Saratoga but finished sixth in the Hopeful. He had beaten Regal Ransom in a pair of Dubai races before finishing second to his stablemate in the UAE Derby. Those two ran 15 lengths ahead of the rest of the field.
"Before the race, when I saddled him, he was quiet," said bin Suroor, speaking of Desert Party in the UAE Derby. "I didn't think that was his day."
Saturday could be.
"I don't guarantee that we are going to win, but at least we have the horses that are going the right way," said the trainer. "Just we need luck. The Kentucky Derby is the best and hardest race in the world."
Both are why Godolphin is back for another try.
"We're always going to try," said bin Suroor, "and maybe one day we will win it."