Frankie Dettori will team up at the $20 million Saudi Cup this month with last year’s runner-up, Country Grammer, as they take on what the jockey considers to be the “best dirt track in the world.”
The 52-year-old jockey has already enjoyed one massive victory on the horse, at the Dubai World Cup last year. Now he has his sights set on the world’s most valuable race, which will take place at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh on Feb. 25.
Dettori is currently racing in the US as part of his farewell world tour, having announced his intention to retire from the saddle, following a glittering career, at this year’s Breeders’ Cup meeting in November. His first win of the winter in America was on Country Grammer, trained by Bob Baffert, when they triumphed in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita on Boxing Day.
“The first day I came here to America to ride he took me by surprise,” Dettori said. “A lot of pressure was on; there were 40,000 people here and he was a big favorite so, of course, I wanted the horse to win.
“He won in style and I was super pleased with him. He still retains all the ability he had last year.
“Bob made it very clear to me that the Saudi Cup was going to be the next target; that’s why he didn’t run in the Pegasus. Touch wood, at the moment, it’s all systems go for the Saudi Cup.”
Flavien Prat was in the saddle at the Saudi Cup last year when Country Grammer was overtaken by surprise winner Emblem Road.
Dettori said he followed the horse’s races in the US closely for the rest of the year and was an interested onlooker when the 6-year-old finished a distant second behind US superstar Flightline in the Group 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in September.
“I texted Bob Baffert after Flightline had beaten him by 19 lengths saying, ‘That was a good run,’” Dettori said with a laugh. “He said to me, ‘Country Grammer thought he won because he never saw Flightline.’
“In fairness, he’s a super consistent horse, he’s unphased by anything. He’s had a good season and there was always the aim to go back to the Saudi Cup this year.
“There’s still a couple of weeks to go and I hope he ships to Saudi in one piece. When you’ve got a 6-year-old, you are kind of confident traveling isn’t going to be an issue but he’s got to bring his A-game and he’s got to be a tough cookie.”
Last year’s winner Emblem Road is expected to lock horns with Country Grammer once again in this year’s Saudi Cup. American raider Scotland Yard and star British filly Saffron Beach are also expected to line up for the 1800m dirt prize, while Panthalassa is likely to head a strong Japanese contingent.
However, Dettori believes Taiba, also trained by Baffert, could pose the biggest threat to his stablemate. Taiba won the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Boxing Day, when Dettori, a former British Champion Jockey, trailed in last on outsider Perfect Flight.
“Taiba made a great comeback run the other day and he’s got fresh legs with little mileage on the clock,” Detrori said. “He is one of the horses I would fear as he’s got plenty to give.”
The Saudi Cup weekend promises to be a busy one for Dettori. He expects to pick up other big-race rides for Baffert in the supporting races on the card, and will partner Ebor hero Trawlerman in the $2.5 million Longines Red Sea Handicap for old allies John and Thady Gosden.
He will also take part in the International Jockeys Challenge on the opening day of the meet, Feb. 24. He will join Brazilian rider Joao Moreira and Yuga Kawada from Japan in the unique event, which features seven of the world’s best male riders and seven top female jockeys.
There is a total of $35.35 million in prize money up for grabs over the two-day Saudi Cup festival, making it the most valuable race meeting in the world. Dettori could not speak highly enough of the quality of the venue.
“I’ve been going to Saudi for the last 30 years. I’m not just saying this because we’re talking about the Saudi Cup, but I think this new track is the best dirt track in the world,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful layout and the sand is not as harsh as some of the American tracks. Turf horses can do really well on it and it brings the two categories closer together.
“The Saudi Cup is established as one of the main events in the racing calendar and I’m very much looking forward to it. The Jockeys Challenge will give me the last chance to ride with some great jockeys from around the world. It will be great fun.”