Godolphin’s Thunder Snow, the smashing winner of the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3) at Meydan, hopes that a home court advantage helps him versus Japan’s unbeaten Epicharis in Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby (G2). The 4TH race on the Dubai World Cup undercard, the UAE Derby is the first race on the calendar worth 100 Kentucky Derby points to the winner.

The clash between Thunder Snow and Epicharis is just one dimension of a fascinating renewal, which features a capacity field of 16 from all over the globe. The deep cast includes Todd Pletcher’s Master Plan, Aidan O’Brien’s pair of Lancaster Bomber and Spirit of Valor, and Mike de Kock’s Fawree.

Thunder Snow spearheads a three-strong team for Godolphin, the all-time leading owner in the UAE Derby with seven wins. All seven have been trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who sends out Thunder Snow and stablemate Top Score on Saturday. They’re joined by Fly at Dawn from the Charlie Appleby yard.

“It is a new trip (about 1 3/16 miles) for each of them but both worked well earlier this week,” bin Suroor said of his duo. “Thunder Snow has a touch of class and we expect a big run, whereas Top Score is improving all the time.”

As a measure of that confidence, Thunder Snow has been given a late nomination to the Triple Crown. By the time of the early nomination deadline in January, he had never raced on dirt. But Thunder Snow dispelled any doubt about his dirt ability in the February 11 UAE 2000 Guineas, where he stamped his authority by 5 3/4 lengths. Christophe Soumillon will be back aboard as he breaks from post 13 here.

Thunder Snow will be going for his third straight score, having romped in the Criterium International (G1) on the turf at Saint-Cloud last October before wintering in Dubai. Top Score has also won two straight, both over this turf course, and most recently edged Fly at Dawn in the Meydan Classic.

Epicharis extended his unbeaten sequence to four in the Hyacinth S. at Tokyo, the second and final scoring race on the new “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby,” thereby clinching a Kentucky Derby invitation. The Kiyoshi Hagiwara trainee stretched his legs over the Meydan track on Wednesday.

“He had a good work, breezed 800 meters (about a half-mile) today and he is moving smoothly. He is right where we want him,” Hagiwara said.

“He has a beautiful conformation and is in good form,” jockey Christophe Lemaire said. “The trainer is also pleased with him. He will run for the first time on dirt here, so the suitability is an unknown factor, but he is a very talented horse, so I'm very looking forward to his race.”

Fellow Japanese shipper and Triple Crown nominee Adirato was second to Epicharis in the Hyacinth. Outfinished late after setting the pace at Tokyo, he was dealt a blow by drawing the far outside post 16 in the UAE Derby.

Also hindered by the draw is Cosmo Charlie, who landed in post 15. Only sixth behind Thunder Snow in the Guineas, the Doug Watson pupil roared right back to take the March 4 Al Bastakiya on the front end. Like Adirato, though, Cosmo Charlie will find it tough hung out wide.

“We wanted a low draw but find ourselves in 15,” Watson lamented. “We are going to need some luck from out there but at least the horse is in great form.”

Watson, who just wrapped up another UAE training title, is double-handed with Triple Crown nominee Bee Jersey. Although a maiden from three starts, he was best of the rest behind Thunder Snow in the Guineas.

De Kock, a six-time winner of the UAE Derby, relies on the talented but quirky Fawree. An impressive maiden winner at Bee Jersey’s expense back in January, Fawree was expected to star in the Al Bastakiya. But he crashed into the gate at the start, losing jockey Bernard Fayd’Herbe in the process. South African “horse whisperer” Malan du Toit was brought in to address his gate issues, and if the lessons have worked, Fawree rates a rebound chance. The beautifully bred colt is by Candy Ride out of 1998 Kentucky Oaks (G1) heroine Keeper Hill.

“We know he is a serious horse and we hope a genuine UAE Derby contender,” de Kock told his website, “so we reached out to South Africa’s leading equine behavioural therapist, Malan du Toit.”

“He is a lovely horse,” du Toit said, “and has been a pleasure to work with throughout. He was a bit insecure to begin with but improved on a daily basis to the extent that we can now load him without a hood and he is happy to stand in the stalls.

“Importantly, the handlers who will deal with him on Saturday were on hand and everything went perfectly.”

Pletcher hopes to become the first U.S. trainer to take the UAE Derby. His Master Plan was second to stablemate Tapwrit, the eventual Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner, in Gulfstream’s Pulpit S. last December. In his only ensuing appearance, Master Plan easily won a stakes race at Ocala restricted to graduates of the Ocala Breeders’ Sale Company sales, where he’d sold for $850,000 last March.

Ken McPeek could also make a breakthrough for American horsemen, but his Group 1-winning Brazilian import Vettori Kin must concede weight as the 131-pound co-highweight. The same goes for dual Argentine classic winner He Runs Away. As Southern Hemisphere-breds, they are about six months older than the Northern Hemisphere-bred three-year-olds, and accordingly carry more weight. For the same reason, they are ineligible for the U.S. Triple Crown races, and won’t be in line for any Kentucky Derby points.

Irish-based Triple Crown nominees Lancaster Bomber and Spirit of Valor will try to give O’Brien his third UAE Derby trophy. Lancaster Bomber, runner-up in last November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) at Santa Anita, is a proven international traveler with more experience than Group 3-placed Spirit of Valor. But both have raced exclusively on turf so far, and the dirt presents them with a big question.

Completing the field are Qatar Man, a closing second to Cosmo Charlie in the Al Bastakiya and fourth to Thunder Snow in the Guineas, and the fillies Nomorerichblondes and Midnight Chica, who finished one-two in the UAE Oaks (G3). 

Thunder Snow photo (sidebar) courtesy Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins

Epicharis photo (top) copyright Japan Racing Association