Racing returned to the UAE on Friday afternoon with a seven-race card at Jebel Ali Racecourse.
The highlight was a 1400m handicap that appeared to be very competitive, at least on paper.
In the end though it was won reasonably comfortably by High On Life who was able to concede weight to his 11 rivals and was probably never headed under Royston Ffrench.
It was a welcome change of Jebel Ali fortune for the jockey, so badly injured on his last visit in January he was out of the saddle for seven months.
On Friday the jockey had a shaky start, when deposited on the dirt track by High On Life as they left the parade ring. All was well though with the pair soon reunited and from then on Ffrench had few moments of worry with his mount, already a course winner, albeit it over 1000m, soon at the head of affairs.
Trying 1400m for the first time, he displayed a taking combination of class and determination to the delight of Ffrench, afforded a tremendous reception by the Jebel Ali faithful. The jockey explained: “Unfortunately he unshipped me going out but we were both fine and able to take our chance. Over the extra 200m I was a bit worried, after he had galloped off and exerted some energy, but he was not really blowing when he was caught so it has all worked out nicely in the end.
The winner is trained by Sandeep Jadhav, embarking on his first full season having been appointed at Fazza Racing Stables in March, and saddling his first Jebel Ali winner.
“Obviously I am delighted and we, as a team, were pretty confident he would stay the extra furlong,” he said. “He just loves this Jebel Ali track and it was a great result, once they managed to get to the start!”
There were two maidens during the afternoon with the first, over 1800m, won stylishly by Cape Of Eagles, confidently ridden by William Lee and providing the perfect beginning to his partnership with trainer Helal Al Alawi. Previously trained by Fawzi Nass, the winner was placed on three of his four outings last season, all at Meydan, and clearly relished the surface and hill finish at Jebel Ali.
Al Alawi said: “The horse had been pleasing us at home so we were very confident of a big run and thought Jebel Ali would suit him.”
Lee, who was based in the UAE for one season as an apprentice 15 years ago, added: “Getting the first winner of any season is always a relief, to do it at the first attempt in a new job is ideal.
“In fairness, the team were pretty confident and I was never really worried during the race; I was always going well and then he quickened nicely when I asked him.”
That winner was sporting the predominantly red silks of Abu Dhabi Racing, a new name on the owner’s roster, and the team promptly doubled up with the smooth success of Silchester in the following 1600m handicap with Lee in the saddle again and always looking confident.
Raced three times, on the all-weather at Southwell on each occasion, in the UK by David Simcock, for whom he made a winning debut in February before twice finishing second, he clearly relishes testing synthetic surfaces.
“I could not be happier with this start to the season,” said a clearly delighted Lee. “Both horses have made my life pretty easy to be honest and handled that sharp bend particularly well which is so important here.
“I had to wait for a gap on Silchester but, when it appeared, he picked up in style and was able to win his race in good fashion.”
Al Alawi completed a memorable afternoon and a treble when combining with Antonio Fresu to take the second maiden, a 1200m sprint and final contest on the day, courtesy of Qadiriyyah.
The very first race of the new campaign, a 1950m handicap and also the longest race on the card, developed into a war of attrition with early leader and eventual third, William Sayle, crying enough and passed at the 300m pole by Hawker. He and Pat Dobbs appeared to be travelling particularly strongly but was visibly weakening in the final 100m and had no answer to the late challenge of Fernando Jara aboard Hello.
Saddled by Ali Rashid Al Rayhi, Hello was registering a third UAE victory and second at Jebel Ali having won a 1600m in December 2016 when handled by Doug Watson, the trainer of Hawker.
“That is, obviously, the perfect start to the new season,” said a beaming Al Rayhi. “He won over 2000m at Al Ain in February so we were not worried about his stamina.’
Jara added: “That was hard work but the horse has dug deep and battled all the way to the line.”
Based in the UAE for a first winter, after just one previous local ride last season, and before dashing back to England to ride in the Futurity Trophy Stakes (G1) at Doncaster on Saturday, Ben Curtis made it third time lucky for the campaign, cementing his new post as stable jockey to Musabbel Al Mheiri with victory aboard the trainer’s Kunani in a second 1400m handicap.
Making his stable debut and on his sixth career outing, after one start in the UK in 2017 and four earlier this year for Satish Seemar, he won quite comfortably and Curtis said: “That is ideal to hit the board on the first day and get the ball rolling. Hopefully it is the first of many!”
Sixteen, the maximum field allowed, contested a 1200m handicap and Richard Mullen, stable jockey for Satish Seemar, picked the correct one of the trainer’s six runners, landing the spoils with Above Normal.
Winning owner, Nasir Askar, said: “This horse won here at Jebel Ali for us over 1400m in March and in England was a winner over 2400m for Godolphin but, Satish Seemar was adamant he had the speed for 1200m. Happily, as is so often the case, he was right!”