2024 Saudi Cup: Seven trends to watch

February 23rd, 2024

Although the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) is still a relatively recent edition to the racing calendar, several trends have already emerged from its first four runnings at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh. 

Saturday’s renewal will reinforce, or rewrite, a few of these patterns. Let's examine the trends, then see how they might apply.

Seven Saudi Cup trends

1. Upset winners have become the norm in the past three years.

The inaugural Saudi Cup in 2020 delivered a winning favorite in U.S. champion Maximum Security, who paid $4.40 as the 6-5 choice. But favorites have met their Waterloo in the world’s richest race ever since. 

In 2021, British shipper Mishriff outstayed Charlatan to spark a $41.60 payout. Locally-based Emblem Road pulled a colossal upset the following year, producing a $229.20 windfall, as market leaders Mandaloun and Mishriff faded to ninth and last, respectively. A year ago, Panthalassa struck for Japan and furnished $34.10, while Taiba floundered in eighth. 

As that summary also reveals, the Saudi Cup has been an equal-opportunity spot for horses from four different racing jurisdictions around the globe. 

2. Three of four winners employed a forward running style.

Maximum Security worked out a stalking trip in this about 1 1/8-mile test around one turn. But champion mare Midnight Bisou came from the clouds to finish a close second. 

Mishriff likewise secured an excellent position in proximity to pace players Charlatan and Knicks Go, and Panthalassa went wire to wire.

Emblem Road is the outlier as the lone deep closer to prevail so far, rallying from last after flubbing the start. Yet, I have the nagging suspicion that Emblem Road capitalized on the prolonged ring-rustiness of Country Grammer, who hadn’t raced for nearly nine months. 

The caveat about this stat: In a renewal overloaded with early pace, closers might not be as up against it. Last year, both Country Grammer and Cafe Pharoah stayed on from further back in the field to take second and third, respectively.

3. The Pegasus World Cup and Champions Cup have not translated well.

As marquee dirt events at this distance in the U.S. and Japan, respectively, the Pegasus World Cup (G1) and Champions Cup (G1) logically should have a bearing on the Saudi Cup. 

Yet the two Pegasus winners who tried, Mucho Gusto (2020) and Knicks Go (2021), both ran fourth. Life Is Good (2022) skipped Saudi in favor of Dubai. Art Collector (2023) remained stateside following his biggest career win rather than making another fruitless trip to Saudi; for whatever it’s worth, he’d thrown in a clunker here the prior year, in 2022. 

It’s been a uniformly more dismal story for the Champions Cup. All four reigning winners of that major dirt contest at Chukyo in December have turned up, only to spin their wheels in subpar efforts – Chrysoberyl (seventh in 2020), Chuwa Wizard (ninth in 2021), T O Keynes (eighth in 2022), and Jun Light Bolt (seventh in 2023). 

Intriguingly, it took a Japanese turf horse, Panthalassa, to score their breakthrough in the Saudi Cup. Yet Japanese dirt horses have had success in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3) and Saudi Derby (G3) on the undercard. Some have simply handled the Saudi surface more effectively than others – a point that holds for international shippers in general.

4. The Breeders’ Cup Classic has yet to have an impact.

Although the sample size of Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) starters going on to the Saudi Cup is rather small, they haven’t exactly advertised the Classic form. McKinzie, runner-up in the 2019 Classic, was a poor 11th when resurfacing here. Tacitus, the 2020 Classic fourth, wound up seventh in the 2021 Saudi Cup. The aforementioned Art Collector was sixth in the 2021 Classic before trudging in 12th here. Taiba, third in the 2022 Classic, romped in the intervening Malibu (G1), only to disappoint as the Saudi favorite. 

The caveat about this stat: Saturday marks the strongest Breeders’ Cup Classic delegation so far, in both quantity and quality. 

5. Three of four winners were making their first starts of the new year.

Freshness has been key. That might be a factor in the negative trend regarding the Pegasus, which is held just a month out from the Saudi extravaganza.

Maximum Security was coming off a victory in the one-turn Cigar Mile (G1) on Dec. 7, 2019. Panthalassa had a similar gap from his 10th in the Hong Kong Cup (G1) on Dec. 11, 2022. Mishriff also went turf-to-dirt, but with a longer break since checking in eighth in Ascot’s Champion (G1) on Oct. 17, 2020.

Once again, Emblem Road is the exception to the general rule. He was exiting a victory in the King Faisal Cup on Jan. 15, 2022.

6. King Faisal Cup more productive than the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup.

Aside from Emblem Road, the King Faisal Cup has produced Great Scot, who was third at a monstrous price behind Mishriff and Charlatan in 2021.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup is the prestigious event at the end of January, but it hasn’t panned out as a Saudi Cup pointer. The nearest anyone has come to springing the double is Making Miracles, the 2022 winner who was subsequently fourth in the Saudi Cup. Mjjack (2020), Derevo (2021), and Scotland Yard (2023) were all unplaced. 

Addendum: The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup, formerly an about 1 1/4-mile prize, was shortened this year to the Saudi Cup trip.

7. Bob Baffert has trained three runners-up, but no winners.

After going close with Charlatan in 2021, Bob Baffert had to settle for second the past two years with Country Grammer. His other high-profile runners haven’t fared as well. In the inaugural, Mucho Gusto tired to a respectable fourth, but stablemate McKinzie flopped, and in 2023, Taiba was eighth. 

How might the trends apply to 2024?

White Abarrio carries the burden of favoritism, but he meets two other prerequisites: the right running style, and arriving fresh off his Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph. The first Classic hero to try the Saudi Cup is the most eligible to forge a stronger bond between the lucrative events. The re-opposing rivals who were beaten in the Classic - Derma Sotogake, Ushba Tesoro, Senor Buscador, and Saudi Crown - have to find a way to turn the tables in conditions that may still play to White Abarrio’s strengths. Nevertheless, the sheer number of them suggests that the Breeders’ Cup will finally play more of a role here. 

National Treasure will have to defy the Pegasus trend if he’s to give Baffert a Saudi breakthrough, but he could put himself in the right position early. Senor Buscador and Hoist the Gold have the same Pegasus hurdle. Saudi Crown also has a January race under his belt, just one week earlier than the Pegasus.

Lemon Pop and Crown Pride are both aiming to buck the Champions Cup trend. At least Crown Pride has course form, as the close fifth here a year ago. Considering that his Champions Cup flop is a total toss (in the aftermath of his Korea travel fatigue), an older, stronger, fresher Crown Pride could be the value play at 20-1.

Carmel Road fits the King Faisal Cup angle, having won that metric mile stakes impressively here on Jan. 13. But Power in Numbers and Scotland Yard must overcome the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques trend. 

Former Baffert pupil Defunded, now trained locally, is pushing the freshness idea arguably too far. He was last seen placing second in the Sept. 30 Awesome Again (G1). Dubai shipper Isolate brings plenty of early speed, but Meydan dirt form hasn’t carried over so well to Riyadh. 

Good luck on Saudi Cup Day!