Back-to-Back Victories for Le Bernadin in $250,000 Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge

Local hero Le Bernadin became the first horse to score a second victory in the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 on Thursday as the star-studded 2017 Dubai World Cup Carnival got underway at Meydan Racecourse.

The Al Maktoum Challenge R1 presented by Longines Elegance in Equestrian, was first contested in 1994 when Red Rainbow triumphed under Johnny Murtagh, and had never had a repeat winner. Keen to change that fact Tadhg O’Shea was fast away on his Ali Rashid Al Rayhi-trained mount from his draw in stall one.

Soon in front, Le Bernadin, who is trained by Ali Rashid Al Rayhi, faced a determined challenge for the lead from a number of rivals, including Frankyfourfingers who soon took over at the head of affairs. The pace looked frantic as O’Shea decided to take his time and settled his mount in about fourth, a move that was vindicated in the final 300m as Frankyfourfingers weakened.

The race then appeared a match between new leader, Long River and Cool Cowboy but, as the latter weakened, Le Bernardin unleashed a telling challenge to win comfortably at the line.

“He is a great horse for a jockey as he is just so versatile,” said O’Shea. “He has so much early speed and he just naturally took me to the front but he does not have to lead and I was happy to take a lead."

“The 1600m is his optimum trip and I knew he would find plenty when I asked him as he is so brave."

“The Godolphin Mile is his main target and perhaps he will just have one more run before then in the Burj Nahaar on Super Saturday.”

The Singspiel Stakes Presented By Longines Performance in Equestrian, an 1800m Listed contest on turf, produced a heartbreaking outcome for trainer Ahmad bin Harmash who must have thought his Championship had stolen the race when shooting clear 300m out under Colm O’Donoghue.

It looked a race winning move with most of his rivals struggling but the Mike de Kock-trained Light The Lights emerged from the pack to chase him down in the final 100m, leading in the final 50m under Christophe Soumillon, sporting the colours of Sheikh Mohd bin Khalifa Al Maktoum.

“He has been off a fair while this horse, so he was entitled to need the run,” said Soumillon, who was completing a double. “Mike told me to settle him early on as he can be quite keen, and to try and challenge in the straight."

“We left it late but he ran on very well once he hit his stride and I always thought we were getting there.”

The Purebred Arabian Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge R1 Presented By Longines Conquest Classic, over the same 1600m on dirt opened proceedings and Britain’s champion jockey, Jim Crowley was able to make a satisfying start to his new job as retained rider for HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Riding the owner’s AF Mathmoon, winner of last year’s Dubai Kahayla Classic for Musabbeh Al Mheiri, Crowley stalked the early pace. They looked to be in trouble at the halfway mark with the same owner’s Manark taking the lead 700m out. But Crowley’s mount suddenly loomed large and within 200m had swept to the front and the pair won easily.

“What a fantastic start and I have the monkey off my back straightaway,” said Crowley. “I was in a bit of a pocket at one stage but when we found racing room I was keen to go for home as he stays well."

“He actually surprised me the way he quickened and he was by far the best tonight.”

The jockey was echoing the same sentiments after the Longines Master Collection, a 1000m turf handicap, in which he completed a double for both himself and Sheikh Hamdan aboard Ertijaal, initiating a brace for Al Rayhi.

Winner of the same race 12 months ago, he was able to give weight and a sound beating to 15 toiling rivals in impressive fashion.

Soon in front, he had most of the opposition floundering in his wake at halfway and quickened clear inside the final 300m.

“That was a very good performance under a big weight,” said Crowley. “He will improve as well fitness wise and is a good sprinter.

“We broke very well and basically I was always happy as he soon found a nice rhythm and then quickened again.:

“It has been a good evening already.”

The first turf race at Meydan this season was a 2410m handicap, the Longines La Grande Classique, and it produced a dramatic finish with Soumillon, having his first ride of the UAE season, producing French challenger, Golden Wood, to lead right on the line.

Having just his second start for trainer Nicolas Caullery, who was saddling his first UAE runner, the jockey knows the horse well from France.

“He is a solid Listed performer but was never quite right last year,” said the Belgian. “We were a bit worried coming here tonight as the horse had not been eating as the trainer would have liked but I was always travelling well and thought we were in front on the line.

“It is always nice when the judge confirms it and it is the ideal start to my 2017 Carnival.

“He has had a hard race so I am not sure what plans the trainer now has for him.”

Doug Watson was responsible for four of the nine runners in The Longines Passion in Equestrian, a 1900m dirt handicap, and duly landed the spoils with seeming second string, Mizbah, who not only made all under Sam Hitchcott but lowered the track record in the process.

As is so often the case on the dirt course, securing the rail and out in front proved the right place to be and it was clear Hitchcott always had that plan in mind; riding Mizbah to lead after about 200m from their middle draw.

With nobody taking him on, he was able to slide across to the inside and, once asked to win his race fully 600m out, Mizbah soon had the race in safe keeping.

“This horse is just so tough and always gives 110 per cent” said Hitchcott. “He loved bowling along in front and then, when I asked him, he quickened really well and that was quite impressive.”

Godolphin rarely leave a Dubai World Cup Carnival meeting empty handed and the Dubai racing operation claimed a last-minute winner when Flash Fire, in the white cap, took the 1400m Longines Dolce Vita under William Buick.