Saudi Cup Day: Picks, value plays, and longshots

February 19th, 2021

If the second annual Saudi Cup Day is anything like the inaugural, we could see some big prices Saturday along with more logical winners.

The Saudi Cup Day races are all eligible for the “Rest of the World Bet Back” – opt in, bet a straight win wager, and if your horse finishes second, get your bet back (up to $10). See details on the offer.

More coverage of the Saudi Cup Day contenders can be found over on

Race 1 - Neom Turf Cup (8 a.m. ET)

A year ago in this race, Port Lions paid $88.80 when edging hot favorite Deirdre. While an upset on that scale doesn’t look likely again, uncertainties about the market leaders suggest it still might not be a chalkfest.

Charlie Hills’ up-and-coming #10 Tilsit (2-1) went straight from an all-weather maiden romp to take the Thoroughbred (G3) at Glorious Goodwood last summer. In his only other start of a brief sophomore campaign, the Juddmonte homebred was fourth in the Joel (G2) to Kameko, Regal Reality, and Benbatl. If ready to pick up where he left off, Tilsit is a major win threat. There are caveats: aside from his inexperience in general (let alone on the international stage), he’s unproven at the about 1 5/16-mile trip. Upside makes me give him benefit of the doubt, but the price is shorter than preferable in the circumstances.

Perhaps the key value is #4 For the Top (12-1), who almost wired this race a year ago and went down narrowly in third. A former champion in his native Argentina, the Salem bin Ghadayer trainee is sure to move forward in leaps and bounds second off the layoff. His quiet comeback in the Singspiel (G2) was a means to the end.  

Recently crowned turf champion #2 Channel Maker (6-1) brings long experience as well as a bang-up third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) to Tarnawa and Magical. But he has a pattern of needing race(s) off the layoff for Bill Mott, and his best form is all over further. Although his class against these can carry him some way, it’s hard to shake off the suspicion that the English Channel gelding is likelier to settle for a minor award.

Race 2 – 1351 Turf Sprint (8:35 a.m. ET)

Another boilover last year was furnished by Dark Power ($57.60), who’s back to defend his title but meets a few tougher opponents in the about 6 3/4-furlong affair.

Charlie Appleby has the clear form choice in #9 Space Blues (4-5), who is entitled to win as a Group 1 hero and specialist at around this trip. Yet the Godolphin runner hasn’t been seen since his career high in the Aug. 9 Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1), and in a scramble where racing luck is vital, relying too heavily on an odds-on favorite is even more of a risk. Stablemate #3 Glorious Journey (6-1), third in this race last year from post 12, could be a bit better off from post 9 Saturday, and his warm-up third in the Al Fahidi Fort (G2) should bring him on.

But a pair of European transplants, both making their debuts for new connections, look overpriced, and if anywhere near their top form, could produce a payday. #10 Urban Icon (15-1), who sold for almost $436,000 at Tattersalls last October, was intriguing even before the booking of John Velazquez (update - now Joel Rosario). Not beaten far by Space Blues in their 2019 meetings, the former Richard Hannon pupil was fourth to Wichita and One Master in the Park (G2) in his British finale, and he has a history of firing fresh.

Ballydoyle castoff #8 Royal Dornoch (20-1) brought less at the same Tattersalls sale (nearly $48,000), but he has a knack for jumping up on occasion. The 2019 Royal Lodge (G2) upsetter (over Kameko) beat elders in last year’s Desmond (G3), and his record might look better if not pitched in over his head a lot. Now Royal Dornoch cuts back in trip and adds a visor for new trainer Musabbeh al Mheiri, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he’s finishing fast late.

Race 3 - Red Sea Turf H. (9:10 a.m. ET)

As much respect as I have for defending champion #1 Call the Wind (2-1), whom I highlighted as value on 2020 Saudi Cup Day ($17.40), it’s worth remembering that he was better off at the weights. Now the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. Just as last year’s beaten favorite Cross Counter was anchored by 137 pounds, so does Call the Wind face a stiffer challenge to give weight all around under that impost. The Freddie Head veteran is too classy for me to toss entirely, but I’m willing to look elsewhere for the winner.

#8 Spanish Mission (6-1) is getting nine pounds from Call the Wind, a hefty concession to the reigning Doncaster Cup (G2) winner. A promising stayer at three, when dominating the 2019 Bahrain Trophy (G3) and getting up in Belmont’s Jockey Club Derby, the five-year-old has long been mentioned as a potential Melbourne Cup (G1) type. Now could be the time for a mature Spanish Mission to come to the fore. Although he hasn’t won first up in the past, I’m viewing that as more in keeping with previous trainer David Simcock’s methodology, and he could be sharper off the bench for Andrew Balding. Appleby’s progressive #3 Secret Advisor (9-2) gets a lesser break at the weights (five pounds), but otherwise has appeal.

Worth a look at a much bigger price is #6 Barbados (20-1), a first-time gelding who gets eight pounds from Call the Wind. Trained by Jessica Harrington after leaving Ballydoyle, the Galileo blueblood has form – at level weights – around last year’s Melbourne Cup hero Twilight Payment. Barbados was best of the rest to him, at 20-1, in the Vintage Crop (G3), and he was fourth in the Irish St Leger (G1) where Twilight Payment was third.

The next two races are a handicap for locally based runners and a contest for Purebred Arabians, so we’ll skip ahead to the rest of the major Thoroughbred events.

Race 6 - Saudi Derby (11:10 a.m. ET)

Last year saw the unheralded Japanese shipper Full Flat ($31) top a longshot exacta with British Mishriff, but the Dubai Carnival representatives are arguably stronger this time.

Granted that I can get too caught up in angles like this, but it speaks volumes that Saeed bin Suroor skipped last Thursday’s UAE Oaks (G3) with #13 Soft Whisper (2-1) in favor of tackling males here. I’ll give her the edge over Godolphin colleague (and fellow Dubawi) #8 Rebel’s Romance (3-1), mainly because she has more experience and appears further along the developmental curve. Note Appleby’s comment from earlier in the Dubai Carnival that Rebel’s Romance will be even better with age, so despite his U.S. Triple Crown nomination, he might not peak until next year. Also factor in Soft Whisper’s five-pound weight allowance, and Mike Smith.

In light of Rebel’s Romance’s promise, #5 Meshakel (8-1) can’t be underestimated as a more forward type with strong collateral form at the Carnival. Named for bin Ghadayer’s champion camel (!), Meshakel nearly wired the UAE 2000 Guineas (G3). The son of Shamardal was just collared late by Mouheeb, a near-misser to Rebel’s Romance two back.

But the biggest value might lie in French shipper #4 Homeryan (8-1), likely to fly completely under the radar. As a soft-ground performer, the Francis-Henri Graffard trainee is just the type to adapt to the Saudi dirt. Homeryan brings solid form too, as a tough-beat second in the Prix Thomas Bryon (G3) to Normandy Bridge (later runner-up to European champion juvenile Van Gogh in the Criterium International [G1]). Interestingly, the Bryon third was Naval Crown, also third in the UAE Guineas to give Homeryan a tie-in to the Carnival. The son of Sea the Stars has the benefit of a prep, outclassing his rivals on the Chantilly Polytrack.

Race 7 - Saudia Sprint (11:50 a.m. ET)

The 2020 formula was American expats plus Japan. The same dynamic could be in play here, but that still leaves multiple options in an open race. Matera Sky, my value idea last year, was agonizingly chinned by New York Central ($23.40), and the two figure to be shorter odds as they renew rivalry. I wouldn’t talk you off either of them.

Still, #5 Justin (6-1) is the Japanese runner on the upswing compared to Matera Sky and Copano Kicking (who would be a real upset shot at 20-1 if back to his best form of old). Although Justin has tended to be a win-or-nothing performer, he’s been feasting much more of late, and punched his Saudi ticket in a fast-run Capella (G3).

For an outside-the-box stab, #4 Harry’s Bar (12-1) is an all-weather specialist who’s beaten such useful Group 2 types as D’bai and Speak in Colours. The dirt is as ever the question for a European, but the Irish invader has a pedigree angle in his favor: sire Exceed and Excel gets Dubai dirt runners, so it’s not too outlandish to think he could act on this surface.

#9 Oxted (7-2) of course brings the marquee European form as the July Cup (G1) winner, and his sire, Mayson, is responsible for Saudi-based Maypole who was fourth here last year. Oxted is reportedly enjoying the track in training. At a price he would be worth a flyer. But unless his odds drift substantially from the morning line, he’s terribly short for a horse facing his dirt debut and first start around a turn.

Race 8 – Saudi Cup (12:40 p.m. ET)

American champions Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou made for a formful result last year, and it would be a major shock if Team USA doesn’t carry off the trophy again.

I was already preferring #3 Charlatan (7-5) to #8 Knicks Go (5-2), and his perfect post 9 – tactically drawn outside of Knicks Go in post 5 – just reinforced it.

Value is likelier to emerge underneath. If last year’s running is any pointer, Dubai dirt form can prevent an all-American sweep of the superfecta. #10 Military Law (12-1) can play a role analogous to Benbatl (third here in 2020), assuming he continues his upward curve for al Mheiri. Runner-up in Benbatl’s Saudi Cup prep at the Carnival last year, Military Law has the familiar profile of a Dubawi improver. He certainly showed a new finesse in his comeback victory in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2), implying he can work out a similar trip in this one-turn prize.

For a total swing for the fences, #7 Great Scot (50-1) has a combination of European back class and proficiency at this track. The British import was bought privately in the fall of 2019 with the express purpose of this race, a gambit that failed when he was 12th behind Maximum Security in the inaugural. But that was his dirt trial by fire off a five-month layoff.

Now a local, Great Scot has romped in all three starts of the current Saudi season, displaying an effective stalk-and-pounce style. It goes without saying that the Saudi Cup is a whole new ballgame, but it’s worth noting his formlines from back home. Beaten barely more than a length when fifth in the 2018 Racing Post Trophy (G1), and midpack in the 2000 Guineas (G1) after finishing second to Mohaather in the Greenham (G3), Great Scot dominated Matterhorn – a future Group 1 winner on the Dubai dirt – in the 2019 Superior Mile (G3). Chances are he’s a fair bit better than when signing off from Britain as a sophomore.

Good luck and enjoy the Saudi Cup!