Early look at Saudi Cup Day: Top contenders, trends, and horses to watch

February 15th, 2022

As the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup has lured high-class competitors from around the globe in its first two runnings. The pattern continues for its third renewal on Feb. 26, now upgraded to international Group 1 status. But the undercard stakes are also gaining in overall quality, as the projected fields for Saudi Cup Day reveal.

Until the final declarations are released next week, here’s how the Saudi Cup and five lucrative supporting events for Thoroughbreds are shaping up.

Saudi Cup (G1): More than Mandaloun versus Mishriff

British-based Mishriff, who famously outstayed Charlatan in the 2021 Saudi Cup, is back to defend his title. If the Gosden trainee repeats, he’d become the richest-ever racehorse, surpassing the great Australian racemare Winx. Mishriff is following a similar trajectory as a year ago, when entering fresh following a loss in the Champion S. (G1) in October. A much better fourth in his latest Champion attempt, compared to a no-show eighth on worse ground in 2020, Mishriff figures to be well backed as the multiple Group 1-winning class of the field.

Mandaloun tops an expected five-strong team of U.S. shippers, along with presumptive pace factors Midnight Bourbon and Art Collector; Happy Saver, whose propensity to look outpaced could be an issue in a one-turn race of this caliber; and Country Grammer, making an ambitious bid off a nine-month layoff. Mandaloun’s innate ability, and his stalking style in a race that’s been challenging for frontrunners, make him the best chance among the stateside contenders.

Thus the simplest storyline is defending champ Mishriff versus U.S. captain Mandaloun, but the Saudi Cup is a lot deeper. Godolphin’s Real World enters in career form with a five-race winning spree. Trainer Saeed bin Suroor is adamant that the son of Dark Angel is much stronger than a year ago when he lost four straight on the Meydan dirt. If Real World handles the surface, 1800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) around one turn is right in his wheelhouse.

Japan has failed to factor in the first two Saudi Cups, but current champion dirt horse T O Keynes can rectify that. Less of a case can be made for Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) shocker Marche Lorraine, who probably won’t get that sort of pace collapse in her swan song. Not to be overlooked is France’s Sealiway, who beat Mishriff in the Champion last out, but is an unknown quantity on dirt – and in his first start since switching to trainer Francis-Henri Graffard.

Saudi Derby (G3): Can Pinehurst end the Japanese longshot pattern?

Bob Baffert’s Pinehurst is the lone American listed as probable for the $1.5 million metric mile. The Del Mar Futurity (G1) winner, who was fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and most recently second to Forbidden Kingdom in the San Vicente (G2), sports the most significant dirt form.

Japan’s Hideyuki Mori has won both editions of this race with longshots. Mori’s not here, but the Triple Crown-nominated pair of Sekifu and Consigliere will try to make it a hat trick for Japan. Sekifu won three straight before a fourth in the two-turn Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun. Reverting to a one-turn configuration, albeit at a mile, could make all the difference to this well-bred son of Henny Hughes. Unbeaten Consigliere won the first scoring race on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Cattleya S., but the form doesn’t look too strong.

Godolphin has three probables, but only bin Suroor’s Island Falcon is eligible for the Triple Crown. Like Island Falcon, Charlie Appleby’s Sovereign Prince brings sharp recent form on the Meydan turf, but with an unambiguously dirt-oriented pedigree as a son of Dubawi and the Bernardini mare Gamilati. Stablemate Noble Truth sports a French Group 1 placing but not a persuasive pedigree case.

Also making the jaunt from their Dubai base are two representing Uruguay, Argentine-bred Perfect Love and Brazilian-bred Kiefer. Perfect Love, the higher-rated of the pair, has yet to race in the Mideast. Kiefer has turned in back-to-back solid placings on the dirt at Meydan, implying that Perfect Love could be one to do even better.

Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3) – A new paradigm without Matera Sky?

Unheralded closers nailed Matera Sky in both previous runnings of this about six-furlong dash. The now-retired Matera Sky can’t suffer heartbreak again. Does his absence change the paradigm, or will late swoopers continue to run down the speed?

Ginobili, best of the rest behind Life Is Good in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), will try to become the first American-trained winner. American-bred New York Central was up in time to stun the inaugural in 2020, but by that point he was a Saudi resident.

Last year, Copano Kicking topped the exacta for Japanese shippers. But Dancing Prince could be Japan’s new hero. A much more frequent winner than Copano Kicking, Dancing Prince stalked and pounced to a new career high last out.

Both American expats in the mix are based in Dubai with Bhupat Seemar. Gladiator King is of special interest as the third here in 2020. Stablemate Switzerland, last year’s fourth, is no slouch either, but he’s been around the block a while, and the sparingly-raced Gladiator King could still have some upside.  

1351 Turf Sprint (G3) – Who has gears for a tight left-handed dash?

Appleby won this last year with Space Blues on the way to Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) glory, and Naval Crown could be his heir apparent. A potential caveat, however, is that Appleby wasn’t so sure he’d have the gears around this tight circuit. Since Casa Creed captured both the six-furlong Jaipur (G1) and seven-furlong Elusive Quality S. on the Belmont Park turf, this about 6 3/4-furlong event should meet his prerequisites.

Yet a few others might feel the same, namely the British and Irish contingent. I’d give the Andrew Balding-trained Happy Power an edge over Rohaan (classy but inconsistent), Thunder Moon (capable if all the pieces fall just right), Happy Romance (possibly too far back), and Pogo (needs further).

Japan’s chief contender, Songline, has the class to be a win threat. The only concern is that she could find this a bit too sharp, a comment that applies with even greater force to compatriots Lauda Sion and Entscheiden.

Neom Turf Cup (G3) – Europeans surround Channel Cat, Authority

Europe can boast both quantity and quality in this about 1 5/16-mile turf contest, where value figures to be plentiful. Britain’s Pyledriver is sure to attract support, but the Aga Khan’s Ebaiyra could get overlooked at a trip that arguably suits her best. Solid Stone can employ the “Sir Michael Stoute improver” card, and German export Grocer Jack represents the world-traveling yard of William Haggas. Godolphin’s top hope is the Andre Fabre-trained Magny Cours, an admirably consistent type who might prefer if this were a little shorter.

The lone Japanese candidate, Authority, commands respect as the runner-up to Triple Crown champion Contrail in the Japan Cup (G1). Yet the son of Orfevre is proven over much farther, and the cutback to his shortest distance in almost two years is a question mark.

Channel Cat flies the stars and stripes for Calumet Farm. It’s doubtful whether he can nick this as he did last summer’s Man o’ War (G1), but trainer Jack Sisterson has a knack for pulling the occasional upset. And the first two winners of this race were both outside-the-box, beginning with Port Lions (2020), who aims to recapture his title for Bahrain.

Red Sea Turf H. (G3) – Top weights beware

A key unifying thread in this about 1 7/8-mile marathon is that the highweight (and favorite) has been unplaced in both editions. That’s a cautionary tale for Sonnyboyliston, assigned the top weight of 62 kilograms (about 137 pounds). It’s also a concern for Germany’s Nerium (61.5 kilograms), in his first attempt going this far, and Princess Zoe (61 kilograms) has to lump a lot for a mare whose tip-top form is over 2 1/2 miles.

France’s Glycon has a sneaky look as an upwardly mobile type getting weight from his established compatriot Skazino. The Joseph O’Brien-trained Baron Samedi likewise renews rivalry on more advantageous terms with Sonnyboyliston, and bin Suroor’s Dubai Future makes a similar case against Appleby’s Siskany. Fellow bin Suroor trainee Desert Fire can’t be discounted based on his current form, although the trip is terra incognita.

Nayef Road has loads of back class in Great Britain, and Mirinaque has recovered his Group 1 form back home in South America. Stay Foolish isn’t a star in Japan, but two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Yoshito Yahagi tends to place his globetrotters well.

Previous coverage of the Saudi Cup for review: