Racing

Kentucky Derby 143: Cloudy With a Chance of Thunder Snow

Irish-bred, Dubai-based Thunder Snow is Godolphin’s latest (and greatest?) Kentucky Derby hope

In 2015 there was Mubtaahij, who brought mystery and intrigue to the Kentucky Derby after winning the UAE Derby in Dubai, only to finish 9th. Last year, it was looney Lani who gained the adoration of fans (along with his own television show back home in Japan) by hissing at competitors and occasionally refusing to run during track work, and finishing 8th. For the third straight year the UAE Derby champion finds himself at Churchill Downs preparing to make a Run for the Roses.

Three could be the charm. Thunder Snow could be the horse.

Thunder Snow’s entry into the Derby is the result of the usual spate of minor injuries and alternate trainer plans during the Derby preps. But Godolphin’s Irish-bred colt may also represent the best hope of one of racing’s most illustrious stables that his talent, along with a crop of 3-year olds that defines “parity”, will finally give Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum the one trophy that’s eluded him.

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“Sheikh Mo”, as he is affectionately known by Thoroughbred racing fans (the legion of Godolphin employees worldwide refer to him as simply “The Boss”) is often credited as one of a short handful of individuals who have not only supported, but advanced the sport worldwide. His bidding battles with Coolmore’s John Magnier at the yearling sales are the stuff of racing legend.

The Sheikh owns Godolphin’s racing and breeding operations, which he launched with the purchase of Dalham Hall Stud in 1981, with one stallion and fewer than 10 employees. Today, it is the centerpiece of Sheikh Mo’s Darley breeding operation in England’s Suffolk countryside, adjacent to the fabled Newmarket Racecourse.

Among the world’s most avid horsemen, Sheikh Mohammed. ©Richard R. Gross

Godolphin and Darley are named after two of the three Arabian stallion progenitor’s of the modern Thoroughbred (the third is the Byerley Turk), and Sheikh Mo revels in reminding all within ear’s reach of the Thoroughbred’s Arabian lineage. He went beyond fable when he and his three brothers took the unusual step of moving a number of their horses from the UK to the swelter of Dubai, and inaugurated a late fall and winter world-class racing season in the Emirate.

The results have been as spectacular as they were insightful with hundreds of horses and victories bearing the famed Godolphin royal blue silks. In an ongoing stroke of racing brilliance, Sheikh Mohammed inaugurated the Dubai World Cup in 1996 with the sole purpose of luring Cigar, the world’s finest racehorse at that time, to Dubai to put this tiny piece of sand and sea on the world map as a destination for racing and tourism.

Today, Godolphin is the world’s largest racing stable, and Darley has expanded its breeding operations in England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. He owns some of the most prized racing and breeding Thoroughbred horses in the world, and has won the biggest races on each continent.

But the one prize he does not own is the one he reputedly treasures most—the Kentucky Derby. He has tried before, 8 times to be exact, and 8 times his horses have failed to threaten.

Enter Thunder Snow.

The 3-year-old son of Darley Australia’s Helmet (out of Eastern Joy, by Dubai Destination) has earned a considerable number of frequent flyer miles in his young career, along with a few impressive runs. He won France’s Group 1 Criterium International and finished second in England’s Group 2 Vintage Stakes as a 2-year-old. But those races were on turf and only a sprinter-worthy seven furlongs.

He was sent off by lead Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor to Dubai for this year’s Carnival season to test his mettle on the dirt and proved he was no clown. He won the Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas over eight furlongs of dirt at Meydan before claiming his big prize, a photo-finish victory in the Group 2 UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup day over Japan’s previously undefeated Epicharis at 9 1/2 furlongs.

Trainer bin Suroor can’t mask his enthusiasm for his new star, the fifth horse he will saddle for a Kentucky Derby. “I am very excited,” said the trainer on arrival in Louisville. “I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time, to bring a horse with a big chance to run in the greatest race in America.”

Drawing the number 2 post in a 20-horse field on a dirt track noted for its kickback seems a less-than-enthusiastic worthy placement. But in Belgian rider Christophe Soumillon, Thunder Snow has a 6-time French champion jockey who has twice won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and is a proven tactical master at Meydan. He also has Kentucky Derby experience as the pilot for Mubtaahij. Given the draw, the tactic will be obvious: a thunder-clap break and position close to the pace away from the Churchill kickback.

Bin Suroor has saddled four hopefuls in the Kentucky Derby: Worldly Manner (1999, 7th), China Visit and Curule (both 2000, 6th, 7th), and Desert Party (2009, 14th). Could this be the colt to break the Derby spell?

“He is the best horse we have ever sent to the Derby,” says Bin Suroor without hesitation.

Somewhere, Sheikh Mo will be watching…and hoping.

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