Country Grammer, shown winning the 2022 San Antonio at Santa Anita, looks to improve on last year’s second-place finish in Saturday’s $20 million Saudi Cup. Benoit Photo, courtesy of Santa Anita
Feb. 24 (UPI) — The eyes of the horse racing world turn to Saudi Arabia with the $20 million Grade I Saudi Cup headlining a $35.35 million weekend at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh.
The fourth edition of the Saudi Cup program finds American trainer Bob Baffert front and center with two top entries in the Cup itself, including last year’s runner-up and Dubai World Cup winner, Country Grammer. Baffert backs that up with a promising 3-year-old in the Saudi Derby.
That’s enough action suck the air out of any tent but the weekend also features an important stop on the official “Road to the Kentucky Derby” at Oaklawn Park and a big event for 3-year-old fillies at the same venue.
Santa Anita’s entire weekend program was canceled because of predicted winter storms, including the first blizzard warning ever issued for Los Angeles County.
Let’s jump right in to what’s left, starting in Riyadh, where there’s little likelihood of a blizzard.
Around the world, around the clock
Saturday’s Saudi Cup program has one powerhouse race after another with American and Japanese horses taking center stage and a strong cast of rivals from other countries. The local team also continues to grow in strength, buoyed by last year’s victory of Emblem Road in the $20 million Cup.
Emblem Road is back to defend that crown, as is last year’s runner-up, Country Grammer. Each has a stablemate in the race, too, with 2022 Santa Anita Derby winner joining Country Grammer from Baffert’s California stable and Scotland Yard pairing up with Emblem Road.
Japan has six horses in the field, most of them making a first or at least rare start on the dirt. The exception is Jun Light Bolt, who has come alive in his last three starts on the dirt in Japan after a mediocre career on turf.
The race is 1 1/8 miles around one turn, but the track, widely lauded by American trainers for playing fair and safe, also is tiring and requires more stamina than most others around the world.
The $1.5 million Group 3 Riyadh Dirt Sprint has three American runners — reigning Eclipse Award male sprint champ Elite Power, last month’s King Cotton Stakes winner Gunite and Meraas, winner of last year’s Group 3 Al Shindagha Stakes in Dubai.
Baffert’s Havnameltdown is the only U.S. entry in the $1.5 million Group 3 Saudi Derby and faces the winners of the first two legs of the “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby” — Continuar and Derma Sotogake. The field also has two from Uruguay and a promising local prospect in My Map.
The $2.5 million Group 3 Red Sea Turf Handicap is 3,000 meters or 1 7/8 miles and features Subjectivist. His last three starts produced wins in the 2020 Group 1 Prix Royal Oak in France, the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup in 2021 at Meydan and the Group 1 Gold Cup at 2021 Royal Ascot.
He hasn’t raced since the Gold Cup in June of 2021 and made only those two starts that year. Trawlerman makes his first start since finishing third in last year’s Ascot Gold Cup.
The $1.5 million Group 3 1351 Turf Sprint has last year’s first two finishers, Songline from Japan and Casa Creed from the United States. Neither is a shoo-in on current form and the rest of the field includes plenty of talent including Resistencia and Bathrat Leon from Japan and Pogo from England.
The $1.5 million Group 3 Neom Turf Cup at 2,100 meters looks to be a wide-open affair with a couple of Godolphin horses and, a rarity for this program, no Japanese entries.
Friday’s program includes a well-patronized jockey challenge.
Neither Golden Sixty nor Romantic Warrior journeyed to Saudi Arabia and, instead, Hong Kong’s top two horses will knock heads for the second time in their careers Sunday in the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup at 2,000 meters on the Sha Tin Racecourse turf.
Seven-year-old Golden Sixty, the reigning two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year, got the better of his 5-year-old rival in their last meeting, the Group 1 Stewards Cup, in January.
That was at 1,600 meters, arguably Golden Sixty’s best trip. This is 2,000 meters, more Romantic Warrior’s line of country although Golden Sixty has won twice at the distance.
“I think Golden Sixty will be hard to beat. We have to respect him. He’s a genius horse and it’s a hard race, for sure,” said Romantic Warrior’s trainer, Danny Shum. “We’ll keep it simple. Fingers crossed.
Golden Sixty’s trainer, Francis Lui, also reported all well with his charge.
“He’s still healthy. Everything is fine and I hope he can handle the distance. He has before. I think so. I think he’s more relaxed and he seems much better,” Lui said.
Sunday’s Sha Tin program also includes the Hong Kong Classic Cup, the middle leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series that finishes with the BMW Hong Kong Derby. That series still seems well up in the air so punters will be poised to get help for their Derby handicapping.
While the Saudi Cup draws most of the attention, the penultimate meeting of the Dubai World Cup Carnival Saturday at Meydan has the Group 2 Balanchine Stakes with With the Moonlight as its star.
The Godolphin filly, who had a star turn of her own last summer in New York, looks like the one to beat and go on to another international campaign.
If she’s top be challenged, it might be by stablemate Tranquil Lady, bought by Godolphin for about $3.42 million at Tattersalls in December. But Charlie Appleby, who trains both, said he remains on “a slight learning curve” with the new one.
The Carnival concludes with Super Saturday, March 4, normally a dress rehearsal for locals aiming at the March 25 Dubai World Cup and its undercard.
A year ago, Lord North came off a long layoff to finish second in the Grade III Winter Derby on the Lingfield Park all-weather course and used that as a springboard to a dead-heat victory in the Group 1 Dubai Turf at Meydan a month later.
He’s back at Lingfield for the 2023 Winter Derby on Saturday, this time as the favorite in the 1 1/4-miles race.
The progression highlights the symbiosis between England’s All-Weather Championships and the rich races that have sprung up in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar and other Mideastern countries, with horses flying back and forth while maintaining training and picking up the occasional few bob.
Lord North, a 7-year-old son of Dubawi, trained by John and Thady Gosden, hasn’t run since July 2 and hasn’t won since the Dubai triumph 11 months ago.
His defeats, though, were against the best — fourth in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh, fifth in the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot and fourth in the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse at Sandown.
The Winter Derby is also a Fast-Track Qualifier for the £200,000 Easter Classic on Good Friday.
Ladbrokes Park hosts a trio of Group 1 events Saturday. The Ladbrokes Blue Diamond Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1,200 meters features Barber, a Godolphin homebred colt by Exceed and Excell undefeated after three previous starts.
The Ladbrokes Oakleigh Plate at 1,100 meters has a full field topped by Roch ‘N’ Horse. And the Lamaro’s Hotel Futurity Stakes is run at 1,400 meters for 3-year-olds and up and drew seven after one scratch. The field includes Alligator Blood and I’m Thunderstruck.
There still more Group 1 action Saturday at Royal Randwick. The 1,600-meter Chipping Norton Stakes drew a tough bunch including Anamoe, Mo’unga and Laws of Indices. The latter was scratched from the Futurity to run here instead.
The 1,400-meter Surround Stakes for 3-year-old fillies has a competitive baker’s dozen.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
The Road to the Roses
Brad Cox saddles the two favorites in a field of 11 for Saturday’s $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, a “Road to the Kentucky Derby” race worth 50 points to the winner.
Verifying, the 2-1 morning line favorite, drew the rail and will try to build on a sparkling victory over the same course in a 1-mile allowance race Jan. 14. Giant Mischief takes a big step up after finishing second in the Remington Springboard Mile in Oklahoma in December.
At first glance, the Rebel appears to be a rare Oaklawn Park 3-year-old race without a Baffert representative.
A closer look finds Reincarnate, winner of the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in his last, has been moved from the Baffert barn to that of his former assistant, Tim Yakteen.
That clears the colt to earn Kentucky Derby points, which he couldn’t do with Baffert as trainer because Churchill Downs says so. He’s the 7-2 third choice on the morning line.
All the others in the Rebel are at longer odds but it would be foolish to ignore a pair of Steve Asmussen trainees — Red Route One, who chased the outstanding Arabian Knight home in the Southwest Stakes, and Gun Pilot, second to Verifying in a January Oaklawn allowance.
Sunday’s $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park drew nine, with trainer Asmussen’s How Did He Do That as the 2-1 favorite on the morning line.
The Good Magic colt finished second in the Riley Allison Derby over the track in his last start and doesn’t have to cope with the winner of that in this heat. He does face a trio of Todd Fincher-trained foes headed by Henry Q, previously trained in California by Doug O’Neill.
The Path to the Oaks
Saturday’s $300,000 Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park looks like a serious tossup among at least a half of the dozen fillies engaged. The morning line reflects that with Grand Love a 3-1 favorite in her first start since a sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Wet Paint and Defining Purpose, first and third, respectively, in the local Martha Washington Stakes, also are prominent on the line but, oddly, the runner-up in that event, Taxed, is posted at 12-1. Maybe it’s the outside draw. The potential surprises include Gambling Girl and Towhead.
Sunday’s $75,000 Island Fashion Stakes at Sunland Park has five with Wish It, a Tapit filly trained by Asmussen, and Flying Connection, a Nyquist miss from Todd Fincher’s barn, the early favorites.
Saturday’s $100,000 Grade III Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita, a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” race, was pushed back a week because of the weather warnings.
Saturday’s $125,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint has a field of seven with Candy Man Rocket as the 9-5 favorite. The Bill Mott-trained 5-year-old, by Candy Ride, won the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay two years ago, but faltered going longer against better and took most of 2022 off. He returned with an impressive win in a 6-furlongs Gulfstream allowance last month.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday’s $150,000 Carousel at Oaklawn Park drew a field of 11 with Yuugiri as the 2-1 morning-line favorite. She finished a fading third in last year’s Honeybee, and then won the Grade III Fantasy before checking in next-last in the Kentucky Oaks after making all the early pace.
She returned from that in December to win a 6-furlong sprint on a muddy Oaklawn track.
Pretty Birdie and California shipper Samurai Charm are worth a look although the latter drew the outside gate. Mercy Warren was mediocre through seven starts, then blitzed a lower-level Fair Grounds field by 16 lengths on New Year’s Day, earning a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. Go figure.
And these, already in the books:
Dr Ardito swung wide into the stretch to challenge for the lead in Monday’s $100,000 Haynesfield Stakes for New York-breds, engaged in a long duel with Bankit and prevailed by a head over that rival.
Dr Ardito, a 5-year-old Liam’s Map gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.86 for jockey Manny Franco. It was the sixth straight win for the lightly raced gray after a second in his career debut.
The Chosen Vron was an overwhelming favorite against just three rivals in Monday’s $100,000 Tiznow Stakes for California-breds and ran to his notices, winning by 6 1/2 lengths, much as jockey Hector Berios pleased.
The 5-year-old Vronsky gelding ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.16, winning his fifth straight race.
Oeuvre wasted no time working to the lead in Fat Tuesday’s $100,000 Mardi Gras Stakes for fillies and mares and coasted home first, 1 1/2 lengths in front of long shot New Boss. Goin Good was third.
Oeuvre, a 4-year-old, Illinois-bred Shackleford filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:05.76. Jareth Loveberry had the mount for trainer Chris Block. Oeuvre. It was her fifth straight win and ninth from her last 10 starts. She has missed a top-three finish only once in 16 starts.