DUBAI: With the Saudi Cup less than three weeks away, the field vying for horse racing’s biggest prize is starting to take shape.
The second running of the Saudi Cup will take place at King Abdul Aziz Racetrack on Feb. 20, and after the massive success of the inaugural event last year, trainers and owners are hoping their horses are peaking at just the right time.
One of them, Hall of Fame American trainer Bob Baffert, believes the $20 m Saudi Cup, run over 1800m on a dirt track, is the ideal race for his improving four-year-old star Charlatan.
“The Saudi Cup is perfect timing for Charlatan,” Baffert said.
“It’s the perfect distance, we know he ships well and he’s a good gate horse. I think The Saudi Cup fits the bill perfectly for him.
“He’s a really talented horse, he’s maturing and getting really good now,” the trainer added.
“I think his talent makes up for his inexperience. He doesn’t know what it’s like to lose and I think that’s a good trait.”
Charlatan’s career has been blighted by injury, but he roared back with an easy victory in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita over Christmas.
“It’s very challenging to go somewhere like Saudi,” said Baffert.
“You need a horse who has a really great mind and he’s got that. To win these races you need to be way the best when you’re travelling that far. I won the Dubai World Cup because I had way the best horse.”
Baffert confirmed that his horse is ready and that he would not have considered sending him to Saudi if he was not 100 percent fit.
The American is well acquainted with the King Abdul Aziz Race Track having had two runners in last year’s Saudi Cup, with Mucho Gusto finishing in fourth.
“It was exciting last year,” Baffert said. “The facilities were very good and it’s a very, soft and kind racetrack, one of the kindest racetracks I’ve seen. It was a great experience. That night there was a lot of buzz in the air, it was a great atmosphere."
“I think The Saudi Cup is great because it gives these older horses a chance to stay in training an extra year and run for that kind of money. It’s great but it is a challenge.
“In the Middle East they have a passion for racing. I have a few owners from Saudi who want to get more involved in American dirt racing, which is very good. We need to be a part of The Saudi Cup.”
Another American trainer, Bill Mott, is looking to have another crack at the Saudi Cup after his horse, Tacitus, finished fifth in last year’s race.
“He’s been a little frustrating in that he always flirts with winning a top Grade 1 - he’s been placed in a lot of prestigious races in the US,” Trainer’s son and assistant Riley Mott said. “For him to win one of these big Grade 1s would mean the world for him in his next career as a stallion.”
Tacitus is owned by Juddmonte Farms, whose founder Prince bin Khalid Abdullah Al Saud died on Jan. 12, 2021.
Mott is looking forward to returning to the Kingdom after the support his horse received last year.
“Any time we run a horse in the Juddmonte silks it’s very special,” he added.
“Every trainer in the world desires to train for such an operation. Last year when we brought Tacitus to Saudi Arabia he had a nice little following locally due to the fact he was a Juddmonte horse. He had a lot of fans there on race day.”
“Just to be in Prince Khalid Abdullah’s home country was very special,” Mott said. “To bring Tacitus back this year is something we’re very much looking forward to, it was a big reason why he was kept in training.”
Meanwhile, another trainer returning to Riyadh, John Gosden, has his sights set on the Saudi Cup $20 million prize with last year’s Prix du Jockey Club hero Mishriff.
The four-year-old was runner-up in The Saudi Derby, run on the same dirt track as the world’s most valuable race, before returning to Europe to complete a summer hat-trick of big-race wins.
“Mishriff has always been a grand horse and he worked nicely going into The Saudi Derby last year,” said Gosden, who is based in Newmarket.
“It was his first time on the dirt, so you never know but he did have the benefit of a wide draw.”
“I think he’s very much a 2000m horse, he’s got a great stride, great tactical speed and a powerful finish,” he added.
“This is 1800m and, if you remember from last year, the American horses break, that’s their game.
“They’re very fast over the first 400m and you really don’t want to be getting in behind all of that. If you get a basin full of dirt in your face, that’s what stops turf horses switching to the dirt as they’re not used to taking all that kickback. That’s why a wide draw would be advantageous.
Gosden, who is also planning to run Global Giant in the $1million Middle Distance Turf Cup over 2100m and New Treasure in the $1.5million Saudi Derby on February 20, was impressed with the first Saudi Cup meeting last year.
“The horses were looked after properly in every way, the facilities were great,” he said. “The main track is exceptional, the American jockeys always say it’s the best they ride on anywhere, and the turf course completely blew me away, it was stunning. We all had a superb experience.”