The March 26 G2 UAE Derby at 1900 meters on dirt is a $2 million race and a lucrative target in its own right, but it has the added allure of conferring 100 qualifying Kentucky Derby points to the winner, too. That’s why trainer Doug O’Neill’s California invader Frank Conversation is headed to Dubai. The race on the DWC undercard also is the intended target for the undefeated and exciting filly Polar River, who won the G3 UAE Oaks on March 3 over the same trip, but the most intriguing runner is Market Rally, an Unbridled’s Song colt who hasn’t had the same press behind him as Polar River but might have more ability at the distance, which is the equivalent to about a mile and three-sixteenths.
Market Rally is from the Mr. Greeley stakes-placed mare Boodles and was bred in Kentucky by Ashview Farm LLC, Colts Neck Stables LLC, and the Unbridled’s Song Syndicate. He was sold for $210,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September sale by Ashview Farm, as agent, to Ben Glass, agent and racing manger for owners Gary and Mary West. The Wests and Glass turned him over to trainer Wayne Catalano, who debuted him at a mile at Monmouth last August — not at 6F, an early clue that Catalano had distance in mind from the outset. The colt was 3-5 that day and won by almost five lengths in 1:41.33, and this led to a lucrative private offer from EA Bloodstock on behalf of Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Sheikh Mohammed’s brother and the owner of the Jebel Ali track in Dubai.
Gary and Mary West are billionaires and don’t need the money, but they run their racing stable as a business and the offer was too good to pass up for a horse that hadn’t won in a fast time or with a big speed figure. Market Rally looked well sold by year’s end, too, because nothing emerged from the race to flatter him.
After the sale, the horse entered the stable of Dubian veteran Dhruba Selvaratnam, Sheikh Ahmed’s longtime trainer at Jebel Ali. Selvaratnam went about targeting the colt for the Dubai classics at Meydan, and he must have found he had a bit of a willful student on his hands. When Market Rally reappeared on January 14 at Meydan in the yellow silks with black epaulets of Sheikh Ahmed, he was blinkered, hooded, equipped with a nasal flair, and balked at loading. He threw his head a few times in the early going and swished his tail a couple of times late in the stretch and finished fourth in the 1400-meter prep for the UAE 2000 Guineas though he continued to try to the wire.
One race earlier, in contrast, Polar River had won the UAE 1000 Guineas trial by almost five lengths in the time of 1:24.26, faster than the colts’ time of 1:25:55, and looked to be a local star in the making with her easy win.
Selvaratnam took off all the equipment except for the nasal flair for Market Rally’s next start in the G3 UAE 2000 Guineas at 1600 meters, but the colt was still a bad actor at the gate, fractious, damp, and lathered underneath, and he needed a blindfold to be loaded after balking repeatedly to enter the stalls on his own.
He broke on top from his inside post — which has been golden at Meydan — and romped, finishing strong and winning off by six lengths in 1:38.08. Again, the competition wasn’t much, but the horse’s performance was visually impressive and indicated that more distance wouldn’t be a problem. But his performance, once again, was overshadowed by Polar River’s 13-length win in the Listed UAE 1000 Guineas earlier on the card where she recorded a time of 1:37.09 for the same distance.
Both horses raced again recently, Polar River in the G3 UAE Oaks at 1900 meters on March 3 and Market Rally in the Listed Al Bastakiya on March 5 over the same trip. Polar River wasn’t as impressive this time at the longer distance but nevertheless won her race by three-parts of a length in 2:00.57.
Market Rally, fractious in the gate and lathered heavily in the chest and wet enough that his nasal flair had loosened and was flapping midway through the race, broke well but pulled noticeably early, throwing his head in the air. He was finally allowed his way by new rider Pat Smullen and once again lead throughout and drew away by almost five lengths to win in 1:58.52 — significantly faster than Polar River’s race. His rider called him immature after the race but praised his effort, which still included some tail swishing through the lane.
The chart of Market Rally’s first race at Monmouth indicated he’d “pulled early,” too, and he’s obviously a horse that needs his head for maximum effort, but his turnaround in time versus Polar River indicates that he’s gotten better as the distances have increased while she may not be quite the star she was at 1600 meters, although she reportedly had several excuses leading up to the race, according to her connections.
The competition, of course, is suspect in the 3-year-old dirt races in Dubai. Most are European turf horses, and not the best of them, either. But Market Rally will face Polar River and US Graded winner Frank Conversation in the UAE Derby and that should be the best class test for him to date. It should be noted that Frank Conversation is a winner on all-weather and turf but has yet to win on dirt and may not be as effective in Dubai as he was in California, but he was fifth in the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity last year — though beaten about eight and a half lengths by Mor Spirit — and O’Neill isn’t likely to ship to the desert unless he thinks he has a shot.
Market Rally, as is evident from the videos, isn’t a stereotypically tall and scopey gray Unbridled’s Song; instead, he’s a medium-built chestnut and a much “tidier” specimen. Frank Mitchell touched on his pedigree here, but the salient points for stamina are these: A Fleets Dancer, a Canadian champion and millionaire half-brother to his 2nd dam, won a 10F G3 race on dirt; Bessarabian, a Canadian champion half-sister to his 3rd dam, was second in the G1 Coaching Club American Oaks at 12F on dirt; Bessarabian’s son Dagda was a close third in the 12F Breeders’ Stakes in Canada at 12F on turf; and The Barking Shark, produced by Bessarabian’s full sister Sweet Augusta, was second in the G1 Strub at 10F on dirt.
A winner of three of four starts, Market Rally is reportedly held in high esteem by his trainer and his riders, his idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, and another standout performance in the UAE Derby might make for some interesting decisions for the Kentucky Derby.