DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The world's richest horse race is even more gilded.
The eight-race Dubai World Cup on Saturday has swelled to $26.25 million in prize money, including $10 million for the showcase event.
The venue in the new $2 billion facility holds 60,000 spectators and is expected to anchor a desert mini-city with canals and marina. But the field for the premier World Cup race is having trouble keeping pace with the high-rolling glamour.
Several top thoroughbreds expected in Dubai have dropped out, including Japan's two-time Horse of the Year, Vodka. American trainer John Shirreffs' once-star mare, Life is Sweet, was retired after suffering muscle cramps.
Meanwhile, the two entries from the Godolphin Racing stables of Dubai's big-spending ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, are considered long shots.
That leaves most attention drifting to Gio Ponti, a two-time 2009 Eclipse Award winner from Castleton Lyons Farm in Kentucky.
The question is how the 5-year-old turf specialist will fare on the synthetic Tapeta surface at the new Meydan Racecourse. His backers take some hope in the second-place finish in November in the Breeders' Cup Classic on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride surface, which is similar to the Meydan track.
Some of Europe's top 10-furlong horses are in the field, including British-trained Gitano Hernando, the Goodwood Stakes winner at Santa Anita in October. The lone Japanese entry, 4-year-old filly Red Desire, looked strong this month in winning the Maktoum Challenge over the same Meydan course.
The two Godolphin horses, Allybar and Mastery, are not considered top contenders.
But the big stage of the World Cup is known for its surprises.
Last year, the mid-ranked Well Armed blew away the field with a 14-length victory -- that was so comfortable that jockey Aaron Gryder patted the 6-year-old American gelding's neck 10 strides before the finish.
The pre-race favorites -- American-trained Albertus Maximus and Asiatic Boy, the 2008 runner-up -- never seriously challenged.
"There are no gimmes at Meydan," said Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford.
In the $5 million, 1 1/2-mile Dubai Sheema Classic, the horse of the moment is Presious Passion, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall and winner of the Mac Diarmada at Gulfstream on Feb. 28.
"All the races are very competitive, and with so many countries represented we know that we are in for a battle," Crisford said.
Since the 1980s, Sheik Mohmammad has turned Godolphin into a major force in racing with purchases of top bloodstock around the world and establishing American operations in Kentucky and South Carolina. But there is one coveted trophy that has eluded him -- the Kentucky Derby.
One of Godolphin's Churchill Downs hopefuls, Vale of York, was scratched from one of the World Cup races, the UAE Derby, after finishing a disappointing fifth in the colt's first start of the year at Meydan this month.
Godolphin said the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner was pulled because of a bout with colic.
The $2 million, 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby is seen as a key prep race for the Kentucky Derby on May 1.
For Godolphin, the World Cup will also serve as a debut for its No. 2 trainer, Mahmood al-Zarooni, who was an assistant to chief trainer Saeed bin Suroor.