LOUISVILLE — If one were to somehow gather the trophy cases of both Coolmore Stud and Godolphin Racing and lay said contents out on a table, there probably wouldn't be too many major prizes in Thoroughbred racing missing from the inventory.
Though the two operations have been staunch rivals at times over the decades, their drive to breed and race the sport's best horses has made them the unabashed leaders in the quest for global racing supremacy.
Fittingly, both the Irish-based empire and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Dubai-centered entity will have representatives taking aim at the world's most famous race this Saturday.
Considering the colors they will carry are among the most high profile in the game, though, both Coolmore hopeful Daddy Long Legs and Sheikh Mohammed's homebred Alpha might be two of the biggest enigmas in the 138th edition of the Kentucky Derby.
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If there is one thing Alpha and Daddy Long Legs have in common, it's that their paths to the first leg of the Triple Crown have fallen on the unconventional side.
Where past years saw Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing determined to bring a horse to the Derby by way of wintering in Dubai, Alpha was allowed to remain in the States with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin after his 11th-place outing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November.
That change in tactics was a marked one for Sheikh Mohammed's program as it seemed winning the Derby his way used to be almost as much a goal as capturing the race itself. Of the seven previous starters Godolphin has had in the race, the best finish was sixth by China Visit in 2000.
With Dubai's Meydan Racecourse and its synthetic main track replacing the old Nad al Sheba and its dirt surface two years ago, officials with Godolphin said it no longer made sense to ship their hopefuls across the world to prep on a surface American classics are not contested on.
"That was a contributing factor of course because now that we're not racing on a sand surface it's less relevant (toward prepping for the Derby)," said Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin. "But it's a question of where the right horse is and where he fits into the program. It doesn't have to be from Dubai or from America or England. There is none of that.
"What we decided with individual horses is not to bring them to Dubai. We wanted them to have as easy a winter as possible in America."
After years of sending few or no runners to the Dubai World Cup card — the richest day of racing — the Coolmore partnership of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier and Derrick Smith ironically used the desert as Daddy Long Legs' Derby launching pad this season. The son of Scat Daddy earned his trip to Louisville when he won the $2 million UAE Derby on March 31 in his first start since running 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November — his lone dirt try in five career starts.
A Group II winner in England last September, Daddy Long Legs has the pedigree to suggest he could handle the dirt even if his one previous try yielded dismal results.
Since the chestnut colt was only scheduled to arrive at Churchill on Tuesday and probably will have only one day to train over the track after clearing quarantine, getting a gauge on his form will be a challenge.
"He's a beautiful actioned horse, a great mover," trainer Aidan O'Brien said in the aftermath of Daddy Long Legs' UAE Derby win. "He obviously is a Scat Daddy, and the Scat Daddys seem to be improving from (age) 2 to 3. They seem like they want to get a trip.
"He's physically done very well, but he was a very good horse last year. He was a little bit lost (in the Breeders' Cup) but ... he has done really well over the winter."
Like Daddy Long Legs, Alpha's Breeders' Cup outing was far from memorable as he became fractious in the gate and then bled during the race.
The bay colt, who is now on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix, turned a corner at the start of the year, winning the Count Fleet Stakes in January and Grade III Withers at Aqueduct on Feb. 4. Though his connections mulled several options for his final prep, he ultimately ended up in the Grade I Wood Memorial where he finished a neck short of Gemologist who refused to yield when challenged in deep stretch.
Alpha emerged from the race with a cut over his left front cannon bone that became infected five days into treatment. McLaughlin said the colt did not miss any significant training time because of the infection and, in Alpha's one work since the Wood, he breezed 5 furlongs in :59.54 at Belmont on April 28.
"I couldn't be happier where we are today with him," McLaughlin said Tuesday, one day after he and his charge arrived in Louisville. "We walked him a couple extra days but he hasn't missed any days training, so (the infection) that's all behind us.
"He had a rough trip in the Wood ... but he ran great and we'll hopefully improve from the run because it was nine weeks between starts."
Though Coolmore partner Tabor watched Thunder Gulch win the roses in 1995, O'Brien is seeking his first Derby victory, having previously started Johannesburg (eighth) and Castle Gandolfo (12th) in 2002 and Master of Hounds (fifth) last year.
The Derby is among the few pieces of hardware Godolphin is lacking. Though the operation's approach to it this year has changed, Crisford said its core philosophy remains the same as ever.
"Of course (the Derby) is a prize just the same as any top race," Crisford said. "But you can't say the Kentucky Derby is the prize because all of the top races are the prizes and they're difficult races to win. And they're races we want to be involved with."