2019 Kentucky Derby: Will Frustrations Continue for Dubai Shippers?

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 11th, 2019

It’s safe to say that few (if any) major Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races have had less of an impact on the annual outcome at Churchill Downs than the UAE Derby (G2) at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.

Held five weeks before the first Saturday in May, the UAE Derby seems like an event that should produce major Kentucky Derby contenders. With a rich purse (currently $2.5 million) and a distance (currently 1 3/16 miles) that isn’t much shorter than that of the Kentucky Derby, shouldn’t the UAE Derby be an ideal springboard to Churchill Downs?

In theory, yes, but there are other factors in play. Dubai is nearly 7,400 miles from Louisville, and the long trip seems to take its toll on aspiring Kentucky Derby candidates. The quality of dirt racing in Dubai—while good—also isn’t quite at the same level as in the United States, so shippers from Dubai are typically facing much tougher competition when they line up to contest the Kentucky Derby.

All this leads up to an interesting observation. No UAE Derby starter has ever hit the board in the Kentucky Derby. It isn’t just that they’ve struggled to win. They’ve struggled to even challenge. A fifth-place effort from Master of Hounds in 2011 represents the best finish from a UAE Derby starter in the history of the Kentucky Derby, and many have run considerably worse.
Year Horse UAE Derby Finish Kentucky Derby Finish
2018 Mendelssohn 1st 20th
2017 Thunder Snow 1st Did Not Finish
2016 Lani 1st 9th
2015 Mubtaahij 1st 8th
2013 Lines of Battle 1st 7th
2012 Daddy Long Legs 1st Did Not Finish
2011 Master of Hounds 2nd 5th
2009 Regal Ransom 1st 8th
2009 Desert Party 2nd 14th
2003 Outta Here 4th 7th
2002 Essence of Dubai 1st 9th
2001 Express Tour 1st 8th
2000 China Visit 1st 6th
2000 Curule 3rd 7th

The 2019 Kentucky Derby could feature two more starters by way of Dubai: Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician, who ran 1-2 in the UAE Derby. What’s interesting is that the profiles of these two colts bear little resemblance to that of previous Dubai shippers in the Kentucky Derby.
Unlike the majority of UAE Derby winners, Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician did not spend the winter in Dubai or Europe. They’re American racehorses through and through, and they both competed in major U.S. Derby preps leading up to their Dubai excursions. Their journeys to Dubai were also brief—they went, they conquered, and they came home again.

Ultimately this means a couple of things. It means that Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician can’t be excluded from handicapping consideration just because they’re unaccustomed to U.S. dirt racing and might find the change in scenery too tough to overcome. If anything they’ll be more comfortable here than they were in Dubai.

But this also means we already have a good idea of how Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician stack up against the best 3-year-olds in North America, which has traditionally been the challenging part of analyzing Dubai shippers. Plus Que Parfait finished off the board in the Lecomte Stakes (G3) and Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds this winter, while Gray Magician came home fourth in the Sham Stakes (G3) and fifth in an optional-claiming allowance (both at Santa Anita Park) before shipping to Laurel Park and finishing second in the Miracle Wood Stakes.

Those form lines suggest that Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician were fortunate to catch an easy field in Dubai and will find the competition at Churchill Downs to be much tougher. A brief analysis of the day's times suggests that the UAE Derby would have produced a sub-90 Beyer speed figure had an official number been assigned. Does that mean Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician won’t factor in the outcome of the Kentucky Derby? Not necessarily. But even though they represent a new breed of Dubai shippers, the handicapper in me suspects that their long journey and the rise in class will prevent them from finishing in the money on the first Saturday in May.