The most anticipated race of the season thus far is upon UAE racing fans: Muntazah vs. North America in the Group 2 $350,000 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 on Thursday at Meydan Racecourse. The two Dubawi-sired dominators—and Dubai's best milers—met once prior in last season's Round 1, with a below-fitness Muntazah finishing well astern a romping North America. Standing at nearly 17 hands, North America towered over his rivals on the track that day, winning by nine lengths and eclipsing both the stakes and track record with a mark of 1:35.88.
Owned by HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum and trained by Doug Watson, a sharper Muntazah would go on to manhandle a similar field by 4¼ lengths in the Firebreak (G3) five weeks later; four weeks prior to smashing North America's aforementioned mark with a 10-length win in Super Saturday's Burj Nahaar (G3) in 1:34.99. Meanwhile, Satish Seemar-conditioned North America stretched out to win the 1900m Al Maktoum Challenge R2 (G2) in facile fashion, but both horses were subsequently past-peak when Muntazah was third in the Godolphin Mile sponsored by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum City—District One (G2) and North America faded to seventh as second-favorite in the Dubai World Cup sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1).
This season, both will make their 2020 debuts in Round 1, with North America officially rated 118 and Muntazah at 116. On Tuesday morning, they drew eyebrow-raising bookend barriers, with Muntazah in post one and North America outside in the eight-hole.
“It's not an ideal draw,” Seemar said. “But I do know he will give it his best. You have two speed horses inside of him with Muntazah and (2018 Godolphin Mile winner) Heavy Metal and if he breaks on top, he should be alright.
“He's had that experience before,” Seemar continued. “It's hard to say what will happen. You can look at it two ways. Either he breaks and jumps out well, takes his spot and wins—or it doesn't work out. (Muntazah) has the (better) draw and a straight-away advantage, so he is the one to beat, but there's always a scenario that will change as the race happens.”
Assistant trainer Bhupat Seemar expressed confidence in how the lightly raced 8-year-old has been preparing: “All is going well with him. We kind of followed the same route as last year and the year before; the proven track and path. He's doing really well and training the way you want to see. He just doesn't do much at home, so he's like Reynaldothewizard was—they keep it all for the racetrack. He's healthy and looking well and I think he'll be fit enough to run well in Round 1.”
Watson is hoping to overcome Muntazah's penchant for slow seasonal beginnings. He was 14th of 15 last year in Abu Dhabi's grassy National Day Cup (Listed) as the favorite to kick off his 2018-19 season and the year prior was ninth of 14 in a Meydan turf handicap. The ultimate goal for Muntazah is the $12 million Dubai World Cup if he proves he can get the additional distance, while a return to the $1.5 million Godolphin Mile—in which he has placed the last two years—is no small contingency.
“He's honestly training great,” Watson said. “He's had two nice works over at Meydan the last two weeks. We've got him as fit as we can get him. Obviously, it's a big race, but that's the way things pan out over here (in Dubai). You have to sometimes go to those bigger races first. Our goals are at the end of the season, so we hope he runs his race on Thursday.
“If it was our second or third run, I'd be very happy with the post,” Watson continued. “I don't know how he's going to jump and travel in the first run of the season. He's a big, heavy horse and we've done more with him than ever before the beginning of the season, but if it's enough, we don't know. If he breaks on top, he won't be taken back. In the (2018) Godolphin Mile, he would have won if we didn't take him back after he broke on top.
“I just want to see him run well, but I'm not going to panic if he doesn't—just look at last year's first race back at Abu Dhabi, when he ran horribly, but then he came back and started to run well. He may take one to get into him, but we're very happy with where he is soundness-wise and everything. We'll go from there.”
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