Channel Maker begins his campaign as the newly minted champion turf male in the $1 million Neom Turf Cup, the opening race on Saudi Cup Day.
Neom Turf Cup – Race 1 (8 a.m. ET)
Channel Maker sports the best piece of form, a third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but the Bill Mott veteran resumes over a shorter 1 5/16-mile trip. Most of his marquee performances have come at 1 1/2 miles, including his wire jobs in last season’s Sword Dancer (G1) and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1). Yet Channel Maker did claim a notable victory in the 2019 Man o’ War (G1) going 1 3/8 miles at Belmont Park, where Ballydoyle globetrotter Magic Wand was a belated third. Joel Rosario was his pilot that day too.
Charlie Hills sends the lone British runner, Tilsit, who’s an honorary Saudi as a homebred for the late Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte. Unexposed with only four starts under his belt, the winner of Glorious Goodwood’s Thoroughbred (G3) was last seen fourth to Kameko in the Sept. 25 Joel (G2) at Newmarket. The First Defence colt would be a threat if handling the stretch-out.
Dubai-based For the Top nearly pulled off a front-running gambit in this race a year ago, when the former Argentine champion was just caught late in third. Unraced again until the Jan. 21 Singspiel (G2) at Meydan, he was a ring-rusty seventh off the 11-month layoff. Trainer Salem bin Ghadayer has forecast significant improvement from that badly needed tightener.
Former Godolphin colorbearer Saltonstall has climbed through the handicap ranks in Ireland, and the Adrian McGuiness charge comes off a three-race winning spree from last fall. The Pivotal gelding broke through with a listed score in the Glencairn, and beat the top-class Romanised at Dundalk. Now he’ll try to continue his progress on the international stage while stepping up from a mile.
Fellow Irish shipper True Self, sixth behind Call the Wind in the longer turf prize here last February, tries her luck in this spot. An ex-hurdler developed into a Flat performer, the Willie Mullins mare has not raced since repeating in the Nov. 7 Queen Elizabeth (G3) at Flemington.
The rest of the field is Saudi-based, although Gronkowski is a recent resident of the Kingdom. Best known for his runner-up efforts to Justify in the 2018 Belmont (G1) and Thunder Snow in the 2019 Dubai World Cup (G1), he was 10th in the Saudi Cup in what turned out to be his finale for bin Ghadayer. Gronkowski moved to Saudi and wound up ninth off the bench in the Jan. 30 Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup. This would mark his first turf start since his juvenile days with Jeremy Noseda.
The other locals exiting the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup are fourth-placer Al Hamdany; Staunch, sixth; Star of Wins, 12th; and Emirates Knight, 16th. Rounding out the contingent are Irish Group 3-winning filly Four White Socks, beaten far in both of her Saudi appearances on dirt, and Kuwait Currency, once a stakes scorer for Richard Hannon and winless on dirt here.