April 15, 2024

Taiba, Country Grammer draw opposite sides in 13-strong Saudi Cup

Taiba looks a picture in Riyadh (Photo by Neville Hopwood/Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia)

Bob Baffert’s dynamic duo of Taiba and Country Grammer will try to have the angles covered between them in Saturday’s $20 million Saudi Cup (G1).

Taiba has drawn inside with post 2, while Country Grammer will break toward the outside of the 13-horse field in post 10. The pair could employ complementary styles as well, with Taiba likely to employ his high cruising speed, and the stamina-laden Country Grammer expected to pounce from just off the pace. Together they give Baffert and Amr Zedan, the owner of Taiba and co-owner of Country Grammer, a one-two punch in pursuit of their first Saudi Cup victory.

Country Grammer nearly won last year’s edition off a lengthy layoff, only to be shocked by Saudi-based Emblem Road. Now Country Grammer returns race-fit, having aced the Dec. 26 San Antonio (G2), and with Frankie Dettori back in the saddle. Country Grammer is 2-for-2 with Dettori, who first guided him to victory in the 2022 Dubai World Cup (G1).

“He had the rail last year (in the Saudi Cup), it didn’t bother him at all,” Baffert said following the draw. “Frankie Dettori knows the horse really well. I’m lucky to have two Hall of Fame jockeys.”

Taiba’s Hall of Fame rider, Mike Smith, has twice gone close in the Saudi Cup. He rode champion Midnight Bisou to a closing second in the inaugural running in 2020, and got run down late aboard Baffert’s Charlatan in 2021.

Taiba arrives via the same route as Charlatan, after an impressive tally in the Dec. 26 Malibu (G1). But unlike the lightly-raced Charlatan, this son of Gun Runner has been tested in a series of major events, and that deeper foundation could make the difference here.

Also in pursuit of a Saudi Cup breakthrough are the Japanese, with a six-horse squad that’s formidable in quality as well as quantity.

Japan’s reigning champion dirt horse, Cafe Pharoah, gave up a chance to three-peat in the February (G1) at Tokyo to try his luck here. Like the metric mile at Tokyo, the about 1 1/8-mile trip at King Abdulaziz Racecourse is a one-turn scenario. The son of American Pharoah, and half-brother to newly-minted champion turf female Regal Glory, gets Joao Moreira – and the far outside post 13.

“The course has a long backstretch,” assistant trainer Naoto Suzuki said, “and therefore I don’t feel any disadvantage in the outside gate. Perhaps it will be better than inside as he won’t get in a traffic jam.”

The top two from the Champions Cup (G1), Jun Light Bolt and Crown Pride, renew rivalry. Crown Pride has taken his game on the road before, as the 2022 UAE Derby (G2) winner who contributed to the pace meltdown in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Ryan Moore picks up the mount on Jun Light Bolt, while Crown Pride reunites with Damian Lane for the first time since their Meydan heroics.

The maestro of international ventures, Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi, sends the speedy Panthalassa. Known for his derring-do on turf, he was the dead-heat winner of last year’s Dubai Turf (G1). The surface is a question mark for Panthalassa, but his tactics aren’t, especially once he landed on the rail.

“I never think about the numbers,” Yahagi said, “but number one should be a good number. There’s only one instruction – gotta go!”

Crown Pride is in post 3, so Taiba finds himself surrounded by forward types.

“I’m happy,” trainer Koichi Shintani said. “I’m hoping three is the lucky number for me. I wanted to avoid the extreme outside or inside. He has a lot of early speed, so this is ideal to get a good position.”

Baffert’s unfazed by Taiba’s position.

“I think it’s good to have a speed horse (Panthalassa) inside of him,” Baffert said. “He likes company, to run with another horse to get him into the race.”

The other Japanese runners, Geoglyph and Vin de Garde, are testing dirt for the first time. Geoglyph has the better chance of the two on paper, both by resume – as the hero of last year’s Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1) – and pedigree, as a son of 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) champion Drefong.

Trainer Tesuya Kimura is pleased with Geoglyph’s drawing post 12.

“It’s the first time to run on dirt and we don’t want him to get too much kickback,” Kimura noted, “so the draw should be preferable for me. He should handle the dirt surface pretty well on his pedigree and he’s handling it well in training.”

Vin de Garde was second and a near-miss third in the past two runnings of the Dubai Turf, contested over a similar one-turn configuration at this distance. The stiff early pace would play to his strengths as a closer, if the son of Deep Impact can act on the surface.

Rounding out the visitors is Dubai shipper Remorse. The Bhupat Seemar pupil was most recently a distant third in the Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) to Algiers. Although Algiers is well fancied for the Dubai World Cup regardless of what transpires in Saudi, Remorse could boost his form with a solid effort.

Defending champion Emblem Road, who pulled a $229.20 stunner a year ago, leads the four-strong home team. The son of Quality Road dominated his Jan. 13 prep for trainer Moutaib Almulawah.

“I’m so happy with the number eight,” jockey Alexis Moreno said of Emblem Road’s draw. “He’s a late horse from the gate, so I can be outside easily. He’s doing very well, he’s run well, and I hope he can do it again.”

But stablemate Scotland Yard, also by Quality Road, is threatening to upstage him. Scotland Yard sports a perfect 3-for-3 record since moving to Saudi Arabia, including the Kingdom’s coveted Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup in his latest.

“It’s a great draw for him,” stable representative Hisham Abdulwahed said of Scotland Yard’s post 4. “He goes in front, doesn’t come from behind, so it’s really great. He has done great here in his three races. This is a big race, a tough race, many good horses and he has to prove himself. He has showed a lot of potential and can prove to be a champion. He’s a good jumper and a great horse.”

Saudi-trained mares Sunset Flash and Lagertha Rhyme, who ran one-two in the Jan. 27 Gulf Cup, complete the cast.

Saudi Cup undercard

The Saudi Cup anchors a program with six Thoroughbred stakes that feature additional U.S. interest. Bill Mott has top contenders in sprint stakes on both dirt and turf. Champion Elite Power, flying the colors for Saudi-based Juddmonte, puts his five-race winning streak on the line against Gunite and Meraas in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3), and Casa Creed, who just missed in last year’s 1351 Turf Sprint (G3), bids to go one better. Baffert’s speed merchant Havnameltdown will try to last the metric mile in the Saudi Derby (G3).

The Japanese loom large throughout the program, with defending champions in both the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (Dancing Prince) and 1351 Turf Sprint (Songline) as well as Yahagi’s Continuar in the Saudi Derby. The British presence is notable in the turf routes. Outstanding stayer Subjectivist returns from a career-threatening injury to try the Red Sea Turf H. (G3), and up-and-comer Missed the Cut looks to continue his ascent versus veteran Sir Busker in the Neom Turf Cup (G3). John and Thady Gosden have major chances in both, Trawlerman in the Red Sea Turf and Mostahdaf in the Neom.