February 26, 2021

Charlatan, Knicks Go lead five-strong American team in Saudi Cup

Charlatan stretches his legs at King Abdulaziz Racecourse (Copyright Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Neville Hopwood)

Top American dirt form reigned supreme in last year’s inaugural Saudi Cup, and once again the U.S. team looms formidable in Saturday’s second running of the $20 million prize. Charlatan and Knicks Go are the headliners, but Tacitus is capable on his day, Max Player brings 2020 Triple Crown form, and blue-collar Sleepy Eyes Todd can punch above his weight in an eclectic field drawing from Europe, Japan, as well as the Mideast.

Saudi Cup – Race 8 (12:40 p.m. ET)

The Charlatan-Knicks Go clash is the primary storyline. Beyond the obvious appeal of two win machines going head-to-head, their forward running styles make for the key race dynamic. Will they turn it into a virtual match race, where one prevails over the other and the rest toil in their wake? Or could their pace cost them both and set the table for an upset?

Speed is the weapon for both, and Knicks Go has drawn inside of Charlatan. Knicks Go will break from post 5 with Joel Rosario, while Charlatan landed post 9 with Mike Smith – “just about perfect for him,” according to Bob Baffert’s assistant Jimmy Barnes.

Charlatan has crossed the wire first by substantial margins in all four starts. He led in three, including the Arkansas Derby (G1) division which he later lost via disqualification. If he proved able to stalk in the Dec. 26 Malibu (G1), it was only thanks to pure sprinter Nashville reeling off white-hot fractions. Knicks Go has likewise perfected his front-running ability since joining Brad Cox, compiling a four-race winning streak highlighted by the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and Pegasus World Cup (G1).

Knicks Go trains over the track (Copyright Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Neville Hopwood)

Interestingly, both trainers have said that the one-turn configuration of the 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup is more of an advantage to Charlatan. Cox believes that Knicks Go prefers two turns.

Dubai-based Military Law just answered that one-turn question with a new career high in the Jan. 21 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2) at Meydan. The Musabbeh al Muheiri charge hitherto appeared to need further, so his sharpness off the layoff going the metric mile bodes well for his Saudi venture. So does his runner-up effort in last Carnival’s Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) to Benbatl, who was subsequently third to Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou here.

Multiple Grade 2 victor Tacitus, fifth a year ago, isn’t coming off as long a layoff this time. Instead of a five-month absence, he exits a fourth in the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) for Bill Mott. The sentimental rooting interest as a homebred for the late Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte, Tacitus must overcome his tendency to come up short on the big stage. But he reunites with John Velazquez, who rode him to his most resounding victory in the July 4 Suburban (G2). (Update: Due to travel problems, Velazquez couldn’t get to Saudi, and Tacitus will be ridden by William Buick.)

Miguel Silva’s Sleepy Eyes Todd has a different profile, rising from a humble background to become a well-traveled winner of the Charles Town Classic (G2), Lafayette on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard, and Mr. Prospector (G3) – the latter pair around one turn. Although these waters are a lot deeper, his fourth to Knicks Go in the Pegasus suggests he might be able to get a slice with Saudi-based Alexis Moreno board.

Late-running Max Player was one of those sophomores who promised a breakthrough without quite delivering, but remains less exposed at this stage than Tacitus. Third in Tiz the Law’s Belmont (G1) in similar conditions to the Saudi Cup, the son of Honor Code figures to get the right set-up for a strong rally. The Steve Asmussen pupil was also third in the Travers (G1) prior to fifths in both the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1), so he’s been mixing it up at a high level. The freshening from the prolonged pandemic Triple Crown grind might have done him a world of good too. Umberto Rispoli picks up the mount. (Update: Rispoli was also grounded due to travel issues, so Mickael Barzalona gets the call-up for Max Player.)

Japan’s experience of the first Saudi Cup was a letdown, with Gold Dream and Chrysoberyl checking in sixth and seventh, but trainer Ryuji Okubo is expecting a better result from Chuwa Wizard. Admirably consistent with an 18-10-3-4 lifetime mark, the son of King Kamehameha downed both Japanese dirt standouts in the Dec. 6 Champions Cup (G1) to book his ticket here. Although Chuwa Wizard wasn’t exactly a revelation, having won the 2019 JBC Classic and 2020 Kawasaki Kinen, his JRA Grade 1 laurel represented a new top.

British shipper Mishriff is the lone European with experience on this track, as a slow-starting but steadily closing second in last year’s Saudi Derby. Trainer John Gosden observed that his outside post gave him time to adjust without facing kickback, wanted a similar draw here, and got it in post 12. The Saudi Cup is obviously tougher, but Mishriff returns as a much more accomplished performer, after capturing the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1) and Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2). His flop in the Champion (G1) at Ascot is a toss-out, since the ground was too bad even for him to handle.

Bangkok has scored his signature wins at 1 1/4 miles, the 2019 Sandown Classic Trial (G3) and two straight editions of the Winter Derby Trial over Lingfield’s Polytrack. But the Andrew Balding trainee missed narrowly in the nine-furlong Strensall (G3) at York in 2019, and he would appreciate a pace war to turn this into a stamina test. Conversely, Extra Elusive capitalized on heady Hollie Doyle rides to take last summer’s Rose of Lancaster (G3) and Winter Hill (G3), and the Saudi Cup won’t be as hospitable.

Indeed, Gosden’s Global Giant had beaten Extra Elusive in the July 19 Steventon at Newbury before the race shape was against him when third in the Rose of Lancaster. In his lone ensuing start, Global Giant was a near-miss runner-up in the Nov. 20 Bahrain International Trophy to Simsir, who had the run of the race. Like Global Giant, Simsir has past all-weather form in Europe. Given how well Bahrain did on the 2020 Saudi Cup undercard, and Simsir’s progressive profile, the Aga Khan-bred can’t be dismissed as a contender for Fawzi Nass. His comeback fourth in the Jan. 29 Crown Prince Cup at Sakhir was mainly designed to put him spot-on for Saudi.

The final two spots in the 14-horse field are reserved for locally trained contenders. English Group 3 veteran Great Scot, 12th when trying dirt for the first time in the inaugural Saudi Cup, has become proficient once acclimatizing. The winner of all three ensuing starts, he romped in the King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Cup over a metric mile in his latest.

Derevo moved up from the reserve list into the field on Wednesday after the withdrawal of Alzahzaah. Formerly a British handicapper with Sir Michael Stoute, the Juddmonte-bred captured the Jan. 30 Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup in his Saudi debut for new connections.

Multiple Chilean Group 1 winner Cariblanco, just denied by Derevo in the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup, was the other reserve.

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