Racing at Sharjah on Saturday afternoon was highlighted by the only Thoroughbred race on the card, the HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum Cup, a 1700m handicap won comfortably by Still Life.
Previously a maiden after nine starts, he had one start in Ireland for Godolphin and Mick Halford before joining Ali Rashid Al Rayhi, for whom he had finished third on three occasions. That is including his most recent outing over this course and distance three weeks ago.
With stable jockey Tadhg O’Shea suspended, Silvestre de Sousa had been booked for the ride but he missed the meeting and was replaced by Jim Crowley who settled his mount, always travelling well, in third. Swinging for home, Crowley asked for a challenge and they soon hit the front quickening away and ultimately winning comfortably.
Crowley who rode Ertijaal for the trainer and Sheikh Hamdan after whom this race is named, to win the 1000m turf handicap on Thursday’s opening night of the 2018 Dubai World Cup Carnival at Meydan said: “These are the spare rides we jockeys like. To be fair, the team seemed quite confident beforehand and I was always happy in the race. The surface and distance have both suited him and, now he has a win, he can perhaps build on this.”
Al Rayhi added: “He ran well here last time and we were quite hopeful of a big run. He has done it nicely and it is nice to win a race named after His Highness.”
The best of the Purebred Arabian action was also a 2000m handicap won relatively cosily by AF Abahe, homebred by Champion Owner Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda and trained by Ernst Oertel. It was a second career win for the horse after a 1600m Al Ain maiden victory on his penultimate start.
Ridden confidently by Antonio Fresu, he made smooth progress to track the leaders leaving the far straight and was ridden to lead exiting the final turn, after which they never looked likely to be caught.
Fresu said: “I have been riding this horse all season and have started to get to know him because he is not an easy ride and tends to hang. He has tried to drift across again today but I was able to stop him and that is two wins and two seconds for me on him this season. That said, both times when he was second we probably should have won but his wayward tendencies have cost him. He is actually a pretty good horse and, as he matures, he will hopefully stop wanting to hang all the time.”
The maximum field of 16 may have gone to post for the opening 1200m maiden but virtually from the outset only one horse was involved; smartly away under Sam Hitchcott, ES Ajeeb went straight to the front, pulled clear at halfway and won by a staggering 19 lengths!
Trained by Ibrahim Aseel and having just his second career start, after finishing well beaten in seventh, over the same course and distance on debut in November, he had clearly learned plenty from that racecourse experience.
Hitchcott, who will surely not ride an easier winner all season, said: “He has certainly won in style. How strong a race it was I do not know but I was never worried at any stage. Obviously this was just a maiden and he will have to go into a handicap or even better company now but he clearly progressed a lot from his first run so, perhaps, he is going to keep improving.”
Just 30 minutes after the ES Ajeeb romp, Joori had to work an awful lot harder to win a handicap over the same 1200m course and distance. Another to lead early on, the five-year-old mare appeared to have her 15 rivals in trouble at halfway but, with 300m to run, was either tiring, or waiting for company. A challenge appeared, in the shape of AF Makerah who actually appeared to lead 100m out, only for Joori to respond to the driving of Gerald Avranche and put her head back in front close home.
Representing Al Asayl and trained by Eric Lemartinel for HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, she was registering a second career success, from ten starts, having previously won a 1400m Al Ain maiden almost exactly a year ago.
Avranche explained: “She was in front a long time and entering the final 200m has almost tried to stop but when the second challenged her she responded well to get back in front. She has won relatively comfortably given the narrow margin and is very versatile as she has the speed for these sprints but stays 1600m.”
Connections completed a double in the concluding 1700m handicap when Baariz, very easy winner of a 1200m course handicap just last week, when never headed, repeated the trick, leading all the way, this time with Avranche replacing O’Shea.
Moubarak and Jesus Rosales ran on for second to complete a 1-2 for Sheikh Khalifa, Lemartinel and the team at Al Asayl Stables.
There was another desperately close finish in the 2000m maiden when Amang Alawda who had led from the outset under Ioannis Poullis and was clear early in the straight tired dramatically in the final 100m and was challenged late by AF Al Montaqem under Richard Mullen.
They crossed the line in unison with the judge’s camera revealing Poullis’ mount had just held on, losing his maiden tag at the third attempt and building on an excellent second on his most recent start, in a 1600m maiden at Al Ain.
Poullis, riding the winner for Elise Jeanne, said: “I am not sure if he was tired or getting lonely but the line appeared just in time. We were only headed close home at Al Ain last time when he stayed on at the same pace so we expected this trip to suit him. He has only had three starts and is learning so, hopefully, can improve from this win.”