LOUISVILLE — Here is some of what is known about the biggest unknown in the 141st Kentucky Derby: He won the $2 million UAE Derby on March 28 by 8 lengths while geared down in the stretch. He has won four of seven lifetime starts with all of his victories coming on the dirt. He has a globally respected trainer who does not bring a runner stateside unless a competitive result is fairly certain.
Pronouncing the name, Mubtaahij, is among the many things tripping up those trying to talk about the colt trained by Mike de Kock. Without up-close knowledge about the son of Dubawi, many are choosing to judge the bay colt's chances for Saturday's race based on the inglorious history of others.
No other major Kentucky Derby prep race has the lackluster history the UAE Derby does, though it bears noting the sample size is small. Held on the undercard of the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse, the 1,900-meter race (about 2,077 yards) has been run since 2000 and in that time only six of the winners have gone on to try the first leg of the American Triple Crown, the best outing being a sixth-place finish by China Visit in 2000.
Prepping for the Kentucky Derby in the desert, period, has been a futile venture. No horse primarily based in Dubai has been able to hit the board. While the depth of this year's expected field is not welcoming to those trying to break trends, it is not hyperbole to suggest that Mubtaahij is a different animal than those who have tried this path before.
"I probably found the worst year ever to attempt to run in the Kentucky Derby," the refreshingly blunt de Kock said Tuesday. "The way he won in Dubai, and I understand the jury is still out on the horses he beat, but he did it in a manner that gave one confidence that you could put the horse on the plane and be competitive. If he had just won, I wouldn't have even bothered."
That Mubtaahij (pronounced MOOB-tahj) is trained by de Kock is an automatic tip-off that this venture is not driven by anything other than a sound assessment of his ability.
A native of South Africa, where he has been named champion trainer eight times, de Kock has run six previous starters in the United States with none of them finishing worse than third. His charge, The Apache, actually crossed the wire first in the 2013 Grade I Arlington Million at Arlington Park but was disqualified to second for interfering with Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Real Solution.
Unlike some of the regimented routines used stateside, de Kock says he is open-minded in his training techniques. He stabled Mubtaahij outdoors in Dubai to help counteract the respiratory infections the colt had been prone to. And given his base is South Africa, the concept of shipping long distances for races is something his stable shrugs off as the norm.
Where use of the anti-bleeder medication Lasix is commonplace in North America, de Kock has said Mubtaahij would not race on it in the Kentucky Derby for the simple reason that he has shown no need for it.
"The reason why I didn't use Lasix on this horse is he's not a bleeder," de Kock said. "He's never been given Lasix and I have no idea how he would perform if he was given Lasix for the first time. I wasn't prepared to take that chance."
Since de Kock's operation has primarily been made up of Southern Hemisphere runners, the concept of one day having a Kentucky Derby entrant "wasn't even a thought."
Bred in Ireland by Dunmore Stud and owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, Mubtaahij was purchased for almost $600,000 at the 2013 Arqana Deauville August yearling sale but got off to a dismal start in England, finishing fifth and seventh in a pair of stakes on the turf at Newmarket.
De Kock initially questioned if the colt was even good enough for him to bring to the Dubai Carnival. In his first start on the main track at Meydan last Dec. 31, Mubtaahij made de Kock wonder how good he could be when he defeated older horses as a juvenile going one mile.
"There were no turf maiden (races), so we had to run him in a maiden at the end of the year with 3- and 4-year-olds, which is not ideal," said de Kock. "And he won that, and won that very well, and sort of made us look up a bit because I believe any 2-year-old that can beat 3- and 4-year-olds at weight for age can't be that bad."
On the urging of good friend Pat Cummings, director of racing information for Trakus and editor of DubaiRaceNight.com, de Kock nominated Mubtaahij to the Triple Crown thinking such aspirations were "a pipe dream" more than anything.
The UAE could not be argued against, though, as jockey Christophe Soumillon was a mere passenger in the lane as Mubtaahij accelerated. Immediately after the race, Soumillon told his trainer it would be wrong not to take a swing a the American classic.
"He's given us a bit of a feel, too," de Kock said. "He seems to handle the kickback well and whatever is thrown at him. Mentally he should be fine with it.
"I think the cream gets settled in the early part of the race very quickly. I think if he can deal with that first 400-600 meters of frenzy, he'll be all right."