The Dubai World Cup boasts 14 horses from five countries in what looks to be a wide-open field competing in the world's richest race.
The showcase event Saturday at Meydan Racecourse tops an eight-race program with $26.25 million in prize money. The World Cup carries a $10 million purse.
The race has several intriguing story lines, with three horses from disaster-ravaged Japan, and three from Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin stables, which hasn't won the race since 2006.
Then there's Gitano Hernando, owned by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been accused of running the mostly Muslim republic in southern Russia like his personal fiefdom.
Three U.S.-based horses are in the field, led by three-time Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti, who finished fourth in last year's World Cup and has earned more than $5 million. The others are Fly Down and Richard's Kid.
But it's England-based Twice Over who is listed as the 2-1 by the Daily Racing Form. A disappointing 10th in last year's World Cup, the 6-year-old horse was brought to Dubai much earlier this year and won the $300,000 Al Maktoum Challenge this month.
"We thought he had a really great chance last year but things didn't go his way," said Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager for Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Racing, which owns Twice Over.
"We saw the other horses that ran well in the Dubai World Cup had been out here and had time out here. We thought maybe that is the key. So far, we are very happy with how the horse has progressed physically and on the track."
Gio Ponti is the 6-1 second choice. He won the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland last year and finished second to Goldikova in the Breeders' Cup Mile in November, but is making his first start of 2011.
Gio Ponti's assistant trainer Christoph Lorieul said the horse has looked much stronger than he did last year during the final series of workouts this week.
"It's a big challenge this year because he hasn't had a run," Lorieul said. "Last year, we came into this race with one run under his belt, whereas he wasn't ready for it this time around. We've just brought him to the race with works only and I hope it works."
Of the Japan-based horses, Buena Vista — with Ryan Moore aboard — could have the best chance. Chosen horse of the year in Japan in 2010, the 5-year-old mare remains a fans favorite and has the credentials after finishing second in Dubai last year in the Sheema Classic.
She has eight wins in 17 career starts as well as six second-place finishes and three thirds — meaning she has never finished out of the money.
Katsumi Yoshida, a trustee of Sunday Racing Co. which owns Buena Vista, said the horse was adapting well to Dubai.
"She looks fit, she has thrived since she arrived in Dubai, and if we did not think she had a chance we would not be here," Yoshida said in an email message. "I know it's a top-quality field, but I believe in Buena Vista's ability."
Other contenders include the Mike de Kock-trained Golden Sword, a late replacement for Bold Silvano, who is out with an injury. De Kock has come close in the World Cup before with both Lizard's Desire and Asiatic Boy finishing second and Victory Moon third.
There is also the Aidan O'Brien-trained Cape Blanco, which won both the Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes last year.
Fly Down, trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, comes in with a pair of runner-up finishes last year in the Belmont Stakes and the Travers.
Zito's assistant Tim Poole said the 4-year-old colt could pull a surprise in his first race outside the United States.
"I've had a few people say to me that they passed this horse around as the sleeper in this race," Poole said. "This horse's races have been strong. He's a late developing horse for us ... We're looking for him to step up now that he has matured. He has trained very well for us so we are expecting a good performance."
Godolphin's race manager Simon Crisford said Poet's Voice, which won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes last year, is his pick to bring the stable its sixth World Cup win. The other two Godolphin horses in the race, Prince Bishop and Monterosso, are largely untested at this top level.
"Poet's Voice is by far away the best horse of our three contenders in terms of unofficial ratings and what he achieved to date," Crisford said. "Monterosso has won Group 2, Prince Bishop won a Group 2, both over a mile and a half. Realistically, they have a lot to prove at this level but they are both very good horses. Poet's Voice has been there and done it. He has beaten some of the best horses at Ascot."