February 23, 2024

Local hero Emblem Road springs $229.20 upset in Saudi Cup

Emblem Road passes Country Grammer to become the first local winner of the Saudi Cup (Photo by Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Douglas De Felice)

Elite campaigners from the world over descended upon Riyadh for the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1), but the trophy stayed home thanks to 113-1 longshot Emblem Road. Trained by Mitab Almulawah and ridden by Wigberto Ramos, the Prince Saud bin Salman Abdulaziz colt swooped on the outside to deny Americans Country Grammer and Midnight Bourbon.

Just as shocking was the last-place finish from defending champion Mishriff, who was beaten on the far turn and wound up tailed off. Mandaloun, the 2-1 favorite, likewise retreated to a distant ninth, and fellow U.S. hope Art Collector gave way in 12th of 14.

Emblem Road is himself an American import, bred by Brushy Hill in Kentucky. His dam, Venturini, hailed from the late Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte operation, giving him a family connection to his adopted Saudi homeland.

A daughter of Bernardini and Juddmonte’s multiple Grade 1 queen Ventura, Venturini was sold for $62,000 as a broodmare at Keeneland November in 2016. The late Mike Recio’s Rockbridge Bloodstock purchased her as agent for Brushy Hill. Her new connections bred her to Quality Road, and the resulting foal is Emblem Road.

Twice an auction veteran, Emblem Road was offered under Recio’s South Point Sales Agency banner as a Keeneland September yearling. Kinsman bought him for $230,000, and he was prepared by Ciaran Dunne’s Wavertree Stables for the 2020 OBS Spring Sale. That was just as the pandemic was forcing closures. The auction was postponed to June, when the dark bay RNA’d for $70,000. Bruno DeBerdt, agent, then secured him as an $80,000 private sale according to the OBS website.

Emblem Road resurfaced at King Abdulaziz Racetrack that fall. Initially owned by Albayraq Stable, the juvenile progressed from a third on debut to win his next three. Prince Saud acquired him ahead of the ensuing Saudi season. Again moving forward from a second in his Aug. 28 comeback, Emblem Road rapidly climbed the class ladder with another hat trick. He earned his way to the main event by capturing the Jan. 15 King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Cup over defending champion Great Scot, who’d been third in last year’s Saudi Cup.

Aside from the quantum leap in class on Saturday, Emblem Road was also racing beyond a metric mile for the first time. His slow start put him last early, but he answered both questions by offering a sustained late run to stun the world.

The pace was fought out between Dubai-based Secret Ambition and Art Collector, with Country Grammer traveling ominously well in their slipstream on the inside. Mandaloun and Mishriff were handy, and although Midnight Bourbon wasn’t as forward as projected, he too was well placed just off the speed.

The first major contender to look in trouble was Japan’s T O Keynes, who came under a vigorous ride on the backstretch. Godolphin’s Real World wasn’t moving with the same verve on dirt as on turf, and the handwriting was on the wall turning for home. Mishriff surprisingly emptied already.

Art Collector could not maintain his position swinging into the stretch, opening the door for Country Grammer who had been on hold awaiting room. When Mandaloun began to flounder, Midnight Bourbon dove through the gap. Making Miracles, the stablemate of Emblem Road, was also circling into contention, but the long-distance performer appeared a bit caught for finishing speed at the about 1 1/8-mile trip.

Midnight Bourbon and Country Grammer put away the weakening Secret Ambition, and the duo came to grips in a rousing stretch duel. Country Grammer, sporting the Zedan Stable silks that ill-fated stablemate Medina Spirit was to have carried in this race, gradually got the upper hand.

Then Emblem Road, who had been hovering in the picture, hit top gear inside the final furlong. Surging past Country Grammer by a half-length, he clocked 1:50.52 and sent the local fans into uproarious jubilation.

“Emblem Road had trained really well,” stable representative Hisham Wahed said, “and I thought that he was going better than Making Miracles. Keeping the Saudi Cup here in the Kingdom – that is the best thing, it is a great feeling. All the people here are happy that we keep it in Saudi Arabia.”

Ramos, perhaps best remembered in his stateside career for upsetting the 1993 Florida Derby (G1) aboard the 29-1 Bull in the Heather, recapped his biggest victory:

“My horse ran a great race and I broke good and my horse was very strong. He wanted to go early, but I took my time with him and took a little hold and saw another horse, so then I just waited for the 500 meters to ask him.

“The key on this track is that you have to be near the front when you pass the 800 meters. If you’re near, you are in a good position and outside is the best part of the track. It’s a big turn, so when you put a horse who comes from behind all the way on the outside, they finish a lot better.

“I knew that I could do it, but now that I’ve done it, I still don’t believe it. I beat so many good horses and this is the biggest race in the world.”

Emblem Road wins the Saudi Cup (Photo by Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com)

Country Grammer almost defied the nine-month layoff for Bob Baffert. 

“He ran great,” jockey Flavien Prat commented. “When I pulled away I thought I was going to win. I thought it was going to be enough and that my horse was doing the hardest, but the winner was just too good and finished harder.”

Joel Rosario, who shrugged off a bad spill in the opener, praised Midnight Bourbon’s effort.

“I thought he ran really well. It was probably a little bit different with him,” Rosario noted, “but he showed heart, he did great.”

Making Miracles stayed on in fourth, bookending the superfecta for Prince Saud and trainer Almulawah. South American star Aero Trem churned on for fifth, to the delight of trainer Antonio Cintra, who felt it was “like a win for Uruguay.”

Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) upsetter Marche Lorraine and T O Keynes could not continue Japan’s torrid run on the night. Marche Lorraine checked in sixth in her swan song, overtaking Secret Ambition, while T O Keynes was well below form in eighth. Mandaloun, Magny Cours, Real World, Art Collector, Sealiway, and Mishriff rounded out the order of finish. Also-eligibles Great Scot and Alkhateeb did not draw into the field.

“No good,” was how Mandaloun’s rider, Florent Geroux, summed up his clunker. “He just wasn’t there today. We knew the locals were good horses but we thought the outside horses might be better.”

Real World had “no action” on the dirt, according to jockey Frankie Dettori. French shipper Sealiway was striding on the surface early, but reacted negatively to another factor in dirt racing – kickback.

“I’m upset to see such a good horse finishing in this way,” new trainer Francis-Henri Graffard said of Sealiway, “but the only thing we didn’t know before we raced was if he would enjoy the kickback or not. He was traveling nicely but as soon as he received some kickback in his face, he stopped.”

Mishriff’s rider, David Egan, was left wondering what might have caused the high-class globetrotter to drop away uncharacteristically.

“He didn’t jump as sharp as last time, but I did a similar thing and kept him out wide,” Egan said. “He got there with ease, but once I turned into the bend I was struggling from a long way out. I hope he’s all right; there’s obviously something amiss. He’s better than that.”

Wigberto Ramos salutes the crowd among absolute scenes at Riyadh (Photo by Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Douglas De Felice)

Emblem Road certainly showed that he’s better than the market reckoned, paying $229.20, $66.60, and $29.80 in North America. The four-year-old extended his winning streak to four, with an overall mark of 9-7-1-1 and more than $10.2 million in the bank.

Can Emblem Road perform up to this lofty level away from his home track? Ramos is eager to find out in the Mar. 26 Dubai World Cup (G1).

“I think he could go on to the Dubai World Cup. He’s the kind of horse who can do it.”