October 17, 2021

Inaugural Saudi Cup coming up a blockbuster – and so could the undercard

Maximum Security concluded his three-year-old season with an impressive win in the Cigar Mile H. (G1) at Aqueduct (c) NYRA/Coglianese/Viola Jasko

A clash of Eclipse Award finalists Maximum Security, McKinzie, and Midnight Bisou ramps up anticipation for the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup. Moreover, Riyadh’s Feb. 29 program as a whole could turn out to be a blockbuster, if the nominations for the supporting prizes are any indication.

The about 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup is contested around one turn, given the circumference of King Abdulaziz Racecourse. No less an authority than jockey Frankie Dettori invoked the Belmont Park parallel on thesaudicup.com:

“It’s based on Belmont, a one-turn mile-and-a quarter. Of all the dirt tracks I’ve ridden, it’s the one I like best. The big difference is there’s not much kickback. It gives closers a better chance and, in general, I ride with only one pair of goggles.”

Veteran French rider Olivier Peslier was also complimentary.

“It’s one of the best dirt tracks in the world. A wonderful track and I know that the American jockeys like it very much because it really suits the American horses…It has a long straight, about 400 meters, and there is not much kickback.”

Thus the three principal American shippers will square off in conditions reminiscent of some of their marquee performances. Maximum Security, McKinzie, and Midnight Bisou have all won Grade 1s at one turn as well as two turns. The suspicion is that McKinzie might be best suited to one turn, however, and perhaps the one most appreciative of the configuration.

Another high-profile American expected to line up, Tacitus, arguably would prefer a second turn. That said, he’ll be sharper fresh off the bench. And as a homebred for Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah, a bold performance – on the biggest day in the kingdom’s history as a Thoroughbred racing locale – would mean a lot.

Like Maximum Security and McKinzie, Math Wizard was invited to the Pegasus World Cup (G1), but connections opted to skip Gulfstream and focus on Saudi. Gift Box appeared to be in that category as well, until trainer John Sadler indicated he might go for a repeat in the March 7 Santa Anita H. (G1) instead. Several other U.S. nominees are Pegasus-bound – Higher Power, Seeking the Soul, Spun to Run, Tax, True Timber, and Mucho Gusto. Their plans will become clearer after the Jan. 25 Gulfstream Park festivities.

Mo Forza wins the Mathis Brothers Mile ©Benoit Photo

Mo Forza, on course for the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1), is nominated to both the Saudi Cup on dirt and the $1 million Neom Turf Cup on the newly cultivated Riyadh turf. So is Aidan O’Brien’s globetrotting mare Magic Wand, who is likewise set for an appearance in the Pegasus Turf first.

Other international stars cross-nominated to the Saudi Cup and Neom Turf Cup include Godolphin’s Benbatl (aligning with Saeed bin Suroor’s recent comments); Gronkowski, who nearly upset Thunder Snow in last year’s Dubai World Cup (G1); and Japan’s roving ambassador Deirdre. France’s Skalleti and Norwegian supremo Square de Luynes are not as well known to the casual fan, but are eligible to raise their profile by competing on the world stage.

Chrysoberyl, with jockey Yuga Kawada, wins the Champions Cup (Tomoya Moriuchi/Horsephotos.com)

Japan has a serious dirt horse in the shape of unbeaten champion Chrysoberyl, who’s not dabbling with cross-entries elsewhere on the card. Compatriots Gold Dream and K T Brave are likewise nominated only to the Saudi Cup, but Copano Kicking and Mozu Ascot are eligible for sprints on the undercard too.

Sir Michael Stoute has one single entry – Regal Reality in the Saudi Cup – while Godolphin’s Ghaiyyath, France’s The Revenant, and Hong Kong’s Elusive State are other notable internationals nominated just to the big prize. John Gosden has a handful of up-and-coming hopes, among them all-weather performers Global Giant and Dubai Warrior. Korea’s Blue Chipper, best known for finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), is engaged in the Saudi Cup as well as the dirt sprint.

Imperial Hint successfully defend his title and established a new track record winning the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (G1) at Saratoga (c) Adam Coglianese Photography

That Riyadh Sprint, at about 6 furlongs, is already on the agenda for top-class U.S. speedsters Imperial Hint and Shancelot. Also ticketed, according to Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh, is Engage. Other nominees of interest include Firenze Fire, Pegasus contender Diamond Oops, Flagstaff, Godolphin’s Comicas, and Japan’s Matera Sky and Copano Kicking (who fits this spot much better than the Saudi Cup).

The 1351 Turf Sprint takes its name from its distance in meters, and being closer to 7 furlongs, figures to attract an eclectic group. Mark Casse turned in a nomination for Got Stormy, although it’s unclear where the star miler will go after her comeback in the Feb. 8 Endeavour (G3). Wesley Ward’s international traveler Bound for Nowhere would add intrigue, while Shekky Shebaz and Texas Wedge are in the form of their lives. Among the internationals nominated are Japan’s aforementioned Mozu Ascot and Mr Melody; Suedois; Sergei Prokofiev from Ballydoyle; Charlie Appleby’s Space Blues and Glorious Journey; Sir Dancealot; and Juddmonte’s speedy Equilateral, now a gelding.

Aside from Mo Forza and Magic Wand, other Pegasus Turf invitees engaged in the about 1 5/16-mile Neom Turf Cup are Admission Office, Channel Cat, Zulu Alpha, and American Tattoo. O’Brien can also call upon Anthony Van Dyck, Circus Maximus, and Mount Everest. Other international entries familiar to North American fans are Desert Encounter, Edisa, Intellogent, Pivoine, and Trais Fluors, while Japan’s Loves Only You would warrant respect in her first foray abroad.

Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens snapped Stradivarius’ 10-race winning streak in the British Champions Long Distance Cup (Ascot Racecourse)

The marathon Red Sea Turf H. would be fascinating, if the leading lights turn up. Weights for the about 1 7/8-mile affair were published simultaneously with the nominations, and Ballydoyle stalwart Kew Gardens tops the list at 62 kgs.

Next come Cross Counter and Dee Ex Bee (61.5 apiece), followed by France’s Call the Wind (tied with American cross-entrants Channel Cat and Zulu Alpha at 60). Fellow French-based Called to the Bar and Way to Paris sit at 59.5, with Prince of Arran and Twilight Payment level at 59. Lower in the handicap, but with hopes of landing a spot if enough defect, are Spanish Mission and the aforementioned Edisa.

O’Brien’s other hopefuls include Delphinia and Mount Everest, and U.S. nominees knocking on the door include American Tattoo, Focus Group, Cleopatra’s Strike, and Campaign. Mark Johnston, whose Dee Ex Bee was seconded to Salem bin Ghadayer for the winter, still has Sir Ron Priestley among his in the mix.

If the nominations for the older horses are more of an encyclopedic wish list than a prospectus, even more tenuous are the intentions of the sophomores made eligible for the Saudi Derby. Numerous Americans are on the list, but as with the UAE Derby (G2) on Dubai World Cup night, most are probably remote chances to board a plane for the Mideast.

Perhaps useful scraps of intelligence are to be gleaned for the Ballydoyle 3-year-olds. O’Brien’s possibles – Battle of Liege, King of Athens, New World Tapestry, and Year of the Tiger – could be a sneak preview of some of his Triple Crown nominations. Gosden trains Cherokee Trail for the Coolmore principals as well as Mishriff for Prince A.A. Faisal. Japan’s raft of nominees is led by Full Flat, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) fifth, and Danon Pharaoh, a better-than-appears fifth in the Cattleya Sho.

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The complete list of nominations for the Saudi Cup and undercard races, including the Obaiya Arabian Classic and the Jockey Club Local H., is available at this link.

Supplementary entries can be made by Feb. 18, with final declarations to follow Feb. 25.

The international races have a maximum field size of 14. Ratings assigned by Phil Smith, the retired Head of Handicapping for the British Horseracing Authority, will “form the basis for the selection procedure,” but two slots will be reserved for locally trained horses. The Feb. 8 Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup serves as a “Win and You’re In,” with the other local to be chosen by the Selection Panel.

King Abdulaziz Racetrack Grandstand
King Abdulaziz Racetrack Grandstand (Courtesy Becky Donald/Saudi Cup)