Adam Houghton reports back from Bahrain as the countdown continues to the fifth running of the $1-million Bahrain International Trophy on Friday.
If the first four runnings of the Bahrain International Trophy laid the foundations, then this is the year when all those connected to the race can surely take a moment to stand back and admire what they’ve built.
For the first time on Friday the Bahrain International Trophy will be run as a Group 2 and it arguably wouldn’t be out of place as a top-level contest, such is the quality of the 14-strong field set to do battle for a prize fund now totalling $1 million following a significant cash injection.
Between them the 14 runners have won 73 races, everywhere from Ripon to Riyadh and from Windsor to Woodbine. Even the two locally-trained runners, Calif and Qaader, started their careers in Germany and Britain respectively before joining Fawzi Nass, the man tasked with trying to keep the international challengers at bay again this year.
Nass was successful in that mission when Simsir held on for a popular victory in 2020, but this looks a much deeper renewal and the raiding party features a whole host of star names who are proven at the top table, both human and equine.
Nations Pride and trainer Charlie Appleby certainly come into that category. Appleby – who also saddles the recent Newmarket Group 3 winner Highland Avenue – is 0/5 with his runners in the Bahrain International Trophy to date, but Nations Pride is surely his best chance yet having added a third Group/Grade 1 win to his tally when landing the Canadian International at Woodbine last time.
With a Timeform master of rating of 124, Nations Pride is the clear form pick ahead of John and Thady Gosden's Israr (121), while his overall body of work is indicative of why Appleby is such a good trainer, especially when it comes to pinpointing suitable targets abroad for his horses.
Already a winner in five different countries (Britain, UAE, USA, Germany and Canada), the son of Teofilo is slowly putting together quite the international CV and he typically looked to be taking everything in his stride after a lap of the sun-baked Sakhir circuit on Wednesday morning.
Similar comments apply to defending champion Dubai Future, who is back in familiar surroundings having led home a one-two for trainer Saeed bin Suroor 12 months ago. This year he's joined by stable companion Real World, an absentee since a couple of lacklustre runs earlier in the year but very capable on his day, as he showed when finding only the outstanding Baaeed too good in a pair of Group 1 events in 2022.
The five-strong Godolphin challenge is completed by the André Fabre-trained three-year-old Birr Castle, a last-time-out Listed winner at Chantilly and previously beaten less than a length when finishing third behind none other than Ace Impact in the Prix Guillaume d'Ornano at Deauville in August.
Marhaba Ya Sanafi was no match for the awesome Arc winner when he finished third (beaten six lengths) in the Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly back in June, but he was already a Classic winner having won the Poule d'Essai des Poulains at Longchamp the time before.
Trained by Andreas Schutz, Marhaba Ya Sanafi is just the second European Classic winner to run in the Bahrain International Trophy after Aidan O'Brien's Irish Derby winner Sovereign, who was a close-up third behind Simsir three years ago.
That was O'Brien's only previous runner in the race, but he's back for another shot this year with the rock-solid Champion Stakes fourth Point Lonsdale, while Aidan's son, Joseph, is set to break new ground with Above The Curve, who won last year's Prix Saint-Alary at Longchamp and has since hit the frame at the top level on another five occasions.
That makes it three individual Group/Grade 1 winners – Nations Pride, Marhaba Ya Sanafi and Above The Curve – in the line-up for Friday's race, no mean feat in just its fifth year and crucial to its ambitions of claiming top-level status in the future.
It was also a source of mild frustration for a few of the trainers I had the opportunity to speak to at the track on Wednesday morning, stumbling across a rather more competitive race than they might have expected when they first hatched the idea to come to Bahrain.
Having spent so many years banging heads with the likes of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott on the National Hunt scene in Ireland, Noel Meade would have been hoping for an easier ride on his travels with the prolific six-year-old Layfayette, but it certainly hasn't turned out that way.
"It's jumped up to nearly Group 1 standard hasn't it?" Meade summed up. "I'm sure the whole idea is to build it up and fair play to them. They've put up the money and I hope they're successful with it. It's good for them, just not so good for me!"
Those comments about the strength of the race were echoed by Sporting Life ambassador Richard Fahey, who saddles Strensall Stakes winner Spirit Dancer as the trainer tries to go a few places better than when sending out Fev Rover to finish fourth behind Lord Glitters in 2021.
Fahey said: "I was just talking to the handicapper Phil Smith and he said the winner three or four years ago wouldn't have got into the race this year, so it just shows that if you put the money up you'll get the runners. It's a very strong field and for me it's as good as a European Group 1."
Fahey is well familiar with what it takes to win Group 1 races in Europe, never mind the likes of Appleby, Bin Suroor, Fabre and [Aidan] O'Brien, four of the most successful trainers in the sport's history when it comes to winning at the top level.
It's for that reason that Daniel and Claire Kubler are so excited simply to be involved in Friday's race with Astro King, a horse they purchased out of Sir Michael Stoute's yard for just 36,000 guineas last October.
Never before has this husband-and-wife training partnership had a runner in a Group 1, so it's fair to say that a race of this kind of calibre is virgin territory for them. Whether Astro King can make the step up required to win it is the big question, but he's certainly well worth his place in the field having followed up his win at York's Ebor Festival with a career-best effort to defy top weight in the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket last time.
Summing up the journey they've enjoyed with Astro King, Claire said: "You always have hopes and dreams when you buy a racehorse, but if someone had told me this is where we'd end up I definitely wouldn't have believed them.
"It's been fantastic, for the owners and for us. The Bahrain Turf Club have spoilt us rotten from day one of the invite to now being out here. They're obviously very ambitious and they've developed the race itself really well over the last few years. Putting on a prize pot of $1 million is always going to draw in very good talent and we've got some hot contenders to compete against."
"But we want to be up amongst some of those names," Daniel continued. "As a trainer you're obviously competitive and you want to compete at the highest possible level, but the horse needs to have the ability. When you get a horse with the ability, you'd like to be able to show that you can do it and we're as good as anyone else out there. I think that [winning on Friday] would prove that in a lot of ways."
Of course, the Kublers are far from alone in using Friday's race as a shop window to show what they can do when they get the right materials. The same is also true of the Bahrain Turf Club itself and their ambition to improve the racing product in this country, just as they've done to make the 2023 edition of the Bahrain International Trophy easily the strongest yet.
The foundations are there. Now it's time to stand back and enjoy what promises to be a thrilling race.
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