China Visit was a well-kept secret, apparently even to his owners, until last weekend, when he dominated the U.A.E. Derby at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai in the Middle East.
In only his second race, China Visit romped by 4 1/2 lengths in the 1 1/8-mile U.A.E. Derby, a $500,000 stakes for 3-year-olds on the Dubai World Cup undercard.
"The winner looks like he's going to be heading to the Kentucky Derby," said Tom Albertrani, Godolphin's assistant trainer, referring to China Visit, "if earnings allow him to get into the race."
Albertrani spoke by telephone this week from Dubai, the training center of Godolphin Racing, the world's most successful stable, which is managed by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
A former New Yorker, Albertrani mentioned earnings, because if more than 20 horses are entered in the Derby, the 20 starters will be determined based on earnings in graded-stakes races. China Visit would have none.
He raced once last year, winning a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race by eight lengths. However, in that race on soft turf in Deauville, France, he had only three competitors.
Sheik Mohammed must not have been overly impressed, because when he nominated 12 horses to the American Triple Crown races, China Visit was not among them.
The U.A.E. Derby, a Kentucky Derby prep on dirt created by the sheik mainly for his own horses, was China Visit's second start. At 18-1 odds, he defeated 15 3-year-olds convincingly.
Now Sheik Mohammed must shell out $6,000 for the late-nomination fee to the Triple Crown.
Albertrani said the ease with which China Visit handled the competition impressed him.
"But it's hard to say exactly how good the race was," Albertrani said.
Half of the 16-horse field was owned by Sheik Mohammed or his brothers. They make up the ruling family of Dubai. None of the horses had raced anywhere other than in Dubai or Europe.
Albertrani said the only other Godolphin possibility for the Derby is Chief Seattle, runner-up to Anees in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Gulfstream Park. Godolphin bought Chief Seattle earlier this year from his American owners for an undisclosed amount.
But Chief Seattle is so far behind in training that everything must go perfectly for him to make any of the Triple Crown races, Albertrani said. Chief Seattle will compete this month in a Dubai trial race; China Visit might run in the same race. A decision on Chief Seattle's status for the American classics will be made after that, Albertrani said.
"Right now," the trainer said, "it looks like those are our only two possibilities for the Derby."
This is a quiet weekend for 3-year-olds on the Kentucky Derby trail. But the Santa Anita Derby is next Saturday. Broadcast on Fox, it will showcase six top Derby prospects: War Chant, The Deputy, Anees, Cocky, Captain Steve and the filly Surfside.