Saturday’s inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup numerically shapes up as a clash of American stars and Dubai Carnival standouts, but Japan is not to be overlooked, and Ireland’s Ballydoyle is also taking a stab on dirt for the world’s richest horse race.
Contested at about 9 furlongs around one turn at King Abdulaziz Racecourse, the Saudi Cup configuration is reminiscent of Belmont Park. That could elevate the U.S. runners with Belmont experience, but the dirt track has a reputation for minimal kickback that plays to all running styles.
While the Americans set the standard of dirt form, each must rise to a particular challenge. Last year’s champion 3-year-old male Maximum Security handily beat older horses in his two final outings of 2019, but they were some way below the division’s best. Reigning champion older dirt female Midnight Bisou has bossed fellow distaffers, but she’s never faced males.
Now they’ll be tested by multiple Grade 1 hero McKinzie, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) runner-up who cuts back to arguably his optimal trip. Yet McKinzie isn’t always the most resolute customer, and he can get outdueled by a more dogged foe.
And then there are the potential improvers. At this time a month ago, McKinzie’s stablemate Mucho Gusto was reportedly uncertain of snaring a Saudi Cup invitation. So the Bob Baffert trainee went out and posted a new career high in the Pegasus World Cup (G1), upping his rating to qualify. The obvious question is whether he’ll run back to that breakout effort. If not, we know that Maximum Security has his measure from their exacta in last summer’s Haskell Invitational (G1).
Tacitus, labeled a Saudi as a Juddmonte homebred, could be on the verge of a similar breakout for Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Although a money-burner more often than not last season, the blueblood was beset by problematic trips and still ran consistently well. The rider switch to Jose Lezcano – a necessity after regular pilot Jose Ortiz’s wrist injury – might make a difference. Like Mucho Gusto, he was bested by Maximum Security in their only meeting, in the 2019 Kentucky Derby (G1).
At Wednesday’s draw, the American shippers landed mostly together in the middle, except for Tacitus in post 2. Midnight Bisou drew post 6, with Maximum Security next door (post 7) and the Baffert duo Mucho Gusto (post 8) and McKinzie (post 9) alongside.
— The Saudi Cup (@thesaudicup) February 26, 2020
The lone Irish shipper, Magic Wand, is exploring terra incognita on dirt. The Aidan O’Brien mare is a real trouper, as one glance at her globetrotting resume reveals, and she comes off her second successive runner-up effort in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1). But there’s no compelling reason to think she’ll be that rare Galileo who can do herself justice on dirt, and this looks like another in Coolmore’s series of attempts to make that happen.
Godolphin’s representative Benbatl, a multiple Group 1 winner on turf, just aced his dirt experiment in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2). That made him a leading player for the March 28 Dubai World Cup (G1). The uncertainty here is how he’ll cope with the American pace presence, and whether he’ll find this dirt track as congenial as Meydan.
The other three UAE-based contenders are Dubai World Cup veterans. Gronkowski, perhaps best known stateside for his second to Justify in the 2018 Belmont (G1), has been revived by trainer Salem bin Ghadayer in Dubai and nearly upset Thunder Snow in the 2019 World Cup. Thus his warm-up thirds so far this season could set him up for a peak.
Stablemate Capezzano has won four of his last five. That blip was a last-of-12 finish in the World Cup that he exited lame, but he recently returned to wire the Firebreak (G3). Post 13 will probably not be conducive to those tactics. North America, a flop when well fancied in the past two World Cups, is another who can be lethal on the front end – a scenario that is not easy to manage with other pace players, but the Satish Seemar veteran will try to leverage his position from post 4.
The Japanese shippers won’t mind a hot tempo. Unbeaten champion dirt horse Chrysoberyl makes his international debut after a victory in the Dec. 1 Champions Cup (G1) at Chukyo, where he edged the division’s elder statesman, Gold Dream, in record time at this trip. Gold Dream’s only prior foreign venture was an uncharacteristic last in Arrogate’s World Cup (2017).
Two slots were reserved for locally trained runners, but only one has competed over the track – Mjjack, successful in the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup that was a “Win and You’re In.” Needless to say, much more is required than that bare form. Great Scot brings a loftier profile as the convincing winner of last September’s Superior Mile (G3) at Haydock, his final start for Tom Dascombe, but he’s an unknown quantity on dirt.
Post time for the Saudi Cup, the 8TH race on the card, is 12:40 p.m. (ET). The racing action kicks off at 8 a.m. with the first turf race ever held in the Kingdom, and you can find the undercard preview here.
You can watch and wager at TwinSpires.com, and free Brisnet past performances will be available Thursday. Free PPs are already accessible for the Friday card, highlighted by the International Jockeys Challenge.