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By Anil Mukhi | 27 Feb 2020 |

Even as the Dubai World Cup, hitherto the world’s richest horse race, gets ready to celebrate a quarter century of existence, it has lost its status at the top of the pyramid to the brand new $20 million Saudi Cup, to be run on dirt on Saturday, February 29th 2020 ,at the King Abdulaziz racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Hold on, you may say. Saudi Arabia has horse racing? It’s well known that the UAE has full-fledged horse racing every winter. This development was a natural corollary of the keen interest shown by members of the Al Maktoum family (principally Sheikh Mohammed), who raced extensively in England, Ireland and the rest of Europe prior to the advent of regular racing in their homeland. On the other hand, relatively few representatives of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia have been associated with horse racing in Europe or North America, although that number has been increasing. One should not forget that Prince Khalid Abdullah – owner and operator of the pre-eminent Juddmonte Farms which has been in the forefront of the sport of International horse racing for decades – is also from Saudi Arabia.

Keen to make a mark on the world stage, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of its Chairman H.R.H. Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, decided to hold the Saudi Cup at a purpose-built facility in Riyadh – the Equestrian Club of Riyadh – managed by Adel Al-Mazroa.

Along with the feature, a 1800 m. dirt race, and four others on the same surface, they have also carded three turf races over 1351 m., 2100 m. and 3000 m. An advanced grass surface was grown in record time by leading sports surface specialists, STRI, who have also worked on the management of turf at Ascot Racecourse, football fields for the FIFA World Cup, Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the London Olympics.

When the track was ready, the organizers flew out prominent jockeys William Buick, Frankie Dettori, James Doyle and Daniel Tudhope at the end of January to try out the surface by galloping locally-trained horses over it. The turf track passed with flying colours. It will be the venue of the opening race of the inaugural Saudi Cup Day, with the running of the $1 million Neom Cup over 2100 m., followed by the $1 million STC 1351 Cup over 1351 m. and then the $2.5 million Longines Turf Handicap over 3000 m. All races will be run counter-clockwise (left-handed).

Such a daring venture needs to draw the world’s best horses and the feature has certainly done that. The leading US-raced member of the 2016 crop is here, namely Maximum Security (by New Year’s Day). Practically unbeaten – barring his controversial disqualification in the Kentucky Derby of 2019, and an uncharacteristic runner-up effort in a Listed Race at Monmouth Park – he has to be in the mix. The Coolmore partners have taken a share in the Jason Servis-trained colt, who will be steered by regular rider Luis Saez in the Gary & Mary West silks.

Another with an enviable record on dirt is Midnight Bisou (by Midnight Lute), whose career stats of 18-12-3-3 tell their own story. Big-money Mike (Smith) has been pencilled in astride her for trainer Steve Asmussen, and she ought to give a good account of herself, even though she is unraced since the Breeders’ Cup. She races in the Bloom Racing Stables silks.

In stellar events like this, the name of Bob Baffert cannot be ignored and he is double-handed here with McKinzie (by Street Sense), the mount of Joel Rosario, and Mucho Gusto (by Mucho Macho Man), who has Irad Ortiz, Jr., at the controls. The former hasn’t been seen since he followed home Vino Rosso (by Curlin) in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November, while the latter set himself up perfectly for this race by romping home in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Florida, last month. What’s more, he runs for H.R.H. Prince Faisal Bin Khaled, a member of the House of Saud.

The prince also has a pair of locally-trained runners in Great Scot (by Requinto) and Mjjack (by Elzaam) but neither has the rating that would enable either to score what would be a shock victory.

Unlike most dirt tracks elsewhere, the surface at Janadriyah is composed of very fine sand, and there is little or no kickback – most jockeys ride with but a single pair of goggles. As such, the dirt track rides more like a turf track. This is key to the participation of a pair of turf specialists in Godolphin’s globe-trotting Benbatl (by Dubawi) and Coolmore’s Magic Wand (by Galileo).

The former showed his appreciation for dirt when easily annexing the Al Maktoum Challenge #2 at Meydan in nearby UAE. On that occasion Christophe Soumillon had been entrusted with the task of bringing home the prize, but here the star of 2019, Oisin Murphy – who has won on him before – gets the call from Saeed bin Suroor. Benbatl is sure to figure in the fighting line.

Magic Wand, representing the old firm of Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore, is fresh, having run second in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes last month. Perhaps a shade rusty on that occasion, she has worked well, but frankly others would appeal more given her rather modest strike rate of 3 wins from 23 starts.

Japan breeds horses largely for turf but has a substantial and significant population of dirt performers. The Land of the Rising Sun is represented here by Gold Dream (by Gold Allure), a Gr.1 winner on dirt in that country, with Christophe-Patrice Lemaire resuming his association with the Katsumi Yoshida standard-bearer. More of a threat could be U Carrot Farm’s Chrysoberyl (also by Gold Allure), with his excellent race record. Christophe Soumillon takes over as his pilot.

The proximity of the UAE means that travel is less of a burden on the horses and hence there is a healthy representation of runners from there. Apart from Benbatl, that jurisdiction sends over Capezzano (by Bernardini), who has a defeat of Thunder Snow to his credit, and Gronkowski (by Lonhro), narrowly beaten by Thunder Snow in last year’s Dubai World Cup, both from the yard of Salem bin Ghadayer. Rounding off the UAE team is North America (by Dubawi), who is schooled at Zabeel Stables by none other than Satish Seemar. His contracted rider each Winter has been Richard Mullen and the same rider will take the reins here on the front-runner, who was just nosed out in his prep. race at Meydan after a break of 285 days.

Only one runner remains to be mentioned and that is the very talented Tacitus (by Tapit), a homebred for Juddmonte Farms trained by Bill Mott. Unfortunately, he seems to have lost his ability to win, seeing as how he keeps filling the “place” slots in major races. He has settled in very well after the long journey and has been working exceptionally. Jose Lezcano will guide the grey – perhaps with his owner present, Tacitus may step up and score? 

Summing up the various form lines, one can expect the finish to be dominated by the American quartet of Maximum Security, Mucho Gusto, McKinzie and Midnight Bisou, all drawn in the middle of the field, with perhaps Benbatl and Chrysoberyl clawing back some of the munificent prize-money for the rest of the world.

The Longines Turf Handicap could go the way of Melbourne Cup hero Cross Counter (by Teofilo) – if he can give weight to Joseph O’Brien’s pair of Downdraft (by Camelot) and Twilight Payment (also by Teofilo).