Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi added the world’s richest race to his expanding resume, when his front runner Panthalassa scored a $34.10 upset in Saturday’s $20 million Saudi Cup (G1). The Bob Baffert-trained Country Grammer had to settle for runner-up honors for the second straight year, while favored stablemate Taiba retreated to eighth.
Panthalassa’s tactics and stamina were not in doubt, but his aptitude for the dirt was a question mark. By Lord Kanaloa and out of the Montjeu mare Miss Pemberley, he had flopped in his only prior attempt on the surface, admittedly more than two years ago at Nakayama.
The Hiroo Race Co. colorbearer improved substantially on turf thereafter, and his dramatic dead-heat win with Lord North in the 2022 Dubai Turf (G1) established him as a proper international performer. Panthalassa backed that up later in the season at home, especially in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1), where only future Horse of the Year Equinox was able to run him down.
Yet Panthalassa had disappointed last time out in the Dec. 11 Hong Kong Cup (G1), failing to show his usual zest up front and fizzling to 10th behind local star Romantic Warrior. That only exacerbated the uncertainty surrounding him going into the Saudi Cup. Would we see the swashbuckling Panthalassa of Dubai and Tokyo, or the one who’d gone off the boil in Hong Kong?
The answer was soon clear. Striding right to the lead from his rail post, Panthalassa found his comfort zone while taking his rivals out of theirs. Taiba and Crown Pride stalked initially, but it was another Japanese hopeful employing the turf-to-dirt angle, Geoglyph, who traveled smartly into second down the backstretch. By the far turn, Taiba was not responding, and upon straightening, he would be passed on either side by the Japanese duo of Cafe Pharoah and Crown Pride.
Meanwhile, Geoglyph was straining mightily trying to gain on Panthalassa, who continued to gallop with great gusto for Yutaka Yoshida. Crown Pride loomed wider out, and Cafe Pharoah kept boxing on, as a Japanese sweep of the top four appeared in the offing.
Then Country Grammer rallied onto the scene, but too late to threaten the winner. Panthalassa had three-quarters of a length to spare at the wire, completing about nine furlongs at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in 1:50.80.
Cafe Pharoah chinned Geoglyph at the wire for third, with Crown Pride a close fifth. Defending champion Emblem Road got up for sixth. Next came the best-fancied Japanese runner, Jun Light Bolt, who did not run up to his Champions Cup (G1) score over Crown Pride; Taiba; Remorse; Lagertha Rhyme; Vin de Garde; Sunset Flash; and Scotland Yard, who was well below form in his first local loss.
Panthalassa’s $10 million windfall boosted his earnings past $14.4 million from a record of 25-7-6-0. His two Mideast Group 1s surpass his domestic achievements; his best Japanese wins have come in the 2022 Nakayama Kinen (G2) and 2021 Fukushima Kinen (G3), along with high-profile placings in the Tenno Sho Autumn and Sapporo Kinen (G2).
“Panthalassa had a perfect start today,” said Yahagi, who celebrated a double after Bathrat Leon’s wire job in the 1351 Turf Sprint (G3). “I applaud Yutaka’s jump – it was a masterful job from the jockey. When I drew barrier 1, I thought this was a big advantage to him but it worked perfectly.
“I really can’t believe it. I don’t know if it is real at the moment. Thank you to my staff and to my horse. This horse only has one way to go. He jumped really well when he needed to and got the job done. I think I was correct that my feeling was right that he could handle the dirt. You know this is not easy.”
Yoshida knew that the start was key.
“When he drew barrier 1, my tactic was simply to take a lead,” the winning rider said. “He sometimes doesn’t jump well, so I concentrated on giving him a good start and he did it. When he took an early lead the others did not give too much pressure to him. The pace was not too strong for him; it was another factor for him to keep finding until the line.
“I did break well and then it was straightforward. Mr. Yahagi said to me to ride my race and I would get a good result. So, I didn’t think about the surface. I just rode my race and thought if he adapts to the track, it would be all right. Of course, they were coming for me in the straight, but Panthalassa always found another gear and so I kept riding. It is an unforgettable moment and I am very happy to have ridden the winner.”
Frankie Dettori, on his farewell tour as an international riding legend, was proud of Country Grammer’s effort.
“He ran a super race,” Dettori said. “At the top of the straight, I thought, ‘Oh god, I’m going to finish sixth,’ but he just has too much heart. He wants a mile and a quarter. Super result. They were coming back to me, but the winning post was there.”
Last year, Country Grammer used his excellent second here as a springboard to victory in the Dubai World Cup (G1), and the same game plan is in play. He could get a rematch with Panthalassa over an extra furlong at Meydan Mar. 25.
“I will discuss with my owner after the conference,” Yahagi said, “and then we will decide if we go to Dubai for the World Cup, which is of course a possibility. If my owners let me go to Europe, I would love the challenge.”
Yahagi mastered the challenge of the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar in 2021, sending out Japan’s first-ever winners at the meeting courtesy of Loves Only You in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) and Marche Lorraine in the Distaff (G1). The smartly-dressed horseman always commands attention on the world stage.
“When I started training, no one knew me, and when I wore a hat, they knew who I was,” Yahagi recalled. “Today, I wore the same hat I wore at the Breeders’ Cup. I have between 200 and 300 hats. I don’t count. It would be fun if they started a game where they bet on the color of my hat.”