Although Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby (G2) kicks off the 170-point preps, it’s unclear how significant a role it may play in the Kentucky Derby (G1) picture.

That’s because only two of the seven runners are US Triple Crown nominees, El Camino Real Derby (G3) winner Frank Conversation and Japanese shipper Lani, and both have to step up off their previous dirt races to upstage the red-hot favorite, unbeaten filly Polar River. Although Polar River was nominated to the Kentucky Oaks (G1), her connections are not inclined to head straight into a clash with American champion Songbird.

Four-for-four so far, all coming here at the palatial Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, the Kentucky-bred filly was dominant until her latest outing in the UAE Oaks (G3). Argentine import Vale Dori was running her down late, and Polar River had just three-quarters of a length to spare at the wire. The UAE Oaks was held over the same 1900-meter (about 1 3/16-mile) trip as the U.A.E. Derby.

Vale Dori’s sustained rally implies that she may be able to catch Polar River in their rematch, especially because Vale Dori was making her first Dubai start off a long vacation that day. Trainer Mike de Kock has won this race six times, including with Vale Dori’s sire, 2008 UAE Triple Crown winner Asiatic Boy. The only real concern about Vale Dori involves her weight assignment: as a Southern Hemisphere-bred who’s a little older than the others, she carries 127 pounds. Polar River gets in with just 117 pounds, and the 3-year-old males tote 121.

Another thing in Polar River’s favor is that she’s coming up to the UAE Derby in better shape. Prior to the Oaks, she had tooth trouble that had her out of sorts. Off her feed and ultimately having to see the dentist for a tooth extraction, she wasn’t given a hard time ahead of, or even during, the race. UAE champion trainer Doug Watson is striking a confident tone this week.

Frank Conversation has the same connections as unbeaten champion Nyquist. Trained by Doug O’Neill for Reddam Racing, Frank Conversation has improved markedly since switching to the synthetic Tapeta surface at Golden Gate Fields. After taking the California Derby, he added the El Camino Real to earn his first 10 points toward the Kentucky Derby. He hasn’t performed nearly as well on dirt so far, however, and that’s what he’s out to prove on Saturday. Of course, even if he doesn't win and earn the 100-point windfall, he can still bank plenty of Derby points with a placing (40 points going to the runner-up and 20 to third). A fourth-place effort would be disappointing, but the 10 points for that finish would double his total to 20. 

Lani races in Japan, but he was bred in Kentucky. The gray will try to become the third son of Tapit to land a major prep on the 2016 Derby trail, following Mohaymen and Cupid. Promising but still learning the game, Lani is likely capable of better than he’s shown. Connections hope that he earns enough Derby points here to make it to Churchill Downs, but if not, we’ll see him in the Peter Pan (G2) en route to the Belmont S. (G1). Two other Japanese-based runners, Yu Change and his stablemate On the Rocks, have also made the trip to Dubai.

British-based Lazzam has spent a good part of the winter in Dubai, finishing second in the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) and Al Bastakiya. Unfortunately, the winner of those races, Market Rally, was ruled out of the UAE Derby – and thus denied the chance of a UAE Triple Crown sweep – by a foot problem.

For more details on the leading players in the UAE Derby, see my Brisnet Daily Selections sheet for the Dubai World Cup card.

Photos courtesy of Dubai Racing Club: 
Frank Conversation in the blinkers (photo by 
Neville Hopwood) and Polar River in white bridle