Saudi Cup Preview: Ignore Emblem Road at your peril

February 24th, 2023

It’s an intriguing 13-horse field that’s lining up for the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1). There are two American runners, six Japanese, one from Dubai, and four from Saudi Arabia. Intriguingly, none have made the trip from Europe, which provided the 2021 winner, Mishriff.

Saudi Cup selections

  • #4 Emblem Road
  • #2 Country Grammer
  • #9 Scotland Yard
  • #10 Taiba
  • #6 Jun Light Bolt

Saudi Cup wagers

  • $10 win/$30 show: #4 Emblem Road
  • $1 trifecta: 2, 4 with 2, 4, 9 with 2, 4, 6, 9, 10

Last year, the race went to the 80-1 local #4 Emblem Road, who ran down #2 Country Grammer to take the prize. Both horses are back again, and both should be seen as strong chances.

Country Grammer’s record is naturally more familiar to North Americans. After his Saudi Cup run, he went on to Dubai and won the Dubai World Cup (G1), and then returned home for three consecutive second-place finishes — though one of those was nearly 20 lengths behind the freakish Flightline.

He then got back in the winner’s circle in the San Antonio (G2) at Santa Anita, and given his proven ability to travel he will be a great chance.

Emblem Road’s record since the Saudi Cup is less well-known, having raced just twice. He didn’t handle French turf when fifth of six in the Grand Prix de Vichy (G3), but on his return to Saudi Arabia he put up a stunning performance over a mile Jan. 13, missing the start but still rounding the entire field and winning by four lengths under 137 pounds.

Given he’s already proven at this level on dirt, it’s best to presume he is capable of another big run.

Country Grammer’s stablemate #10 Taiba is clearly a strong prospect as well. Like Country Grammer he was no match for Flightline, finishing 8 3/4 lengths behind him when third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). But he earlier won the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1), both over the Saudi Cup journey of 1 1/8 miles, and after the Breeders’ Cup he scored in the seven-furlong Malibu (G1) Dec. 26.

On international ratings, Taiba is a two-pound better horse than Country Grammer, but whether Taiba handles the journey to Saudi Arabia as well as his experienced stable companion is yet to be seen.

Dubai’s runner, recent Al Maktoum Challenge Rd 2 (G2) third-place finisher #8 Remorse, looks out of his depth, but the Japanese runners should be considered, especially given they won four races and were second in another on this card last year.

Three of the Japanese team are turf horses: the 2022 Japanese 2,000 Guineas (G1) winner #5 Geoglyph and last year’s Dubai Turf (G1) dead-heater #7 Panthalassa and third #11 Vin De Garde. It’s hard to tip them with confidence on dirt, though Geoglyph at least has pedigree on his side, being by Eclipse Award-winning U.S. dirt sprinter Drefong.

Of the Japanese dirt runners, the best is probably #6 Jun Light Bolt. The six-year-old was transformed from a modest turf performer when switched to dirt last year, finishing second on his dirt debut before reeling off three victories. The last was in the 1 1/8-mile Champions Cup (G1), in which he was late clear before running down Saudi Cup rival #3 Crown Pride.

Crown Pride is proven in the Middle East, winning the UAE Derby (G2) last year. He failed after helping set a suicidal pace in the Kentucky Derby (G1), but returned to Japan for three consecutive second-place finishes.

The other Japanese runner is two-time February Stakes (G1) winner #1 Café Pharoah, who is somewhat suspect at trips beyond a mile.

Of the remaining local horses, the best may be #9 Scotland Yard. Unable to win a maiden in four U.S. starts for Steve Asmussen, he has won all three of his Saudi races, including the King Faisal Cup (won last year by Emblem Road) and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup, by more than 10 lengths. By Quality Road out of a half-sister to Beholder and Into Mischief, he has the pedigree and the form to figure here.

The other two local runners — the mares #13 Sunset Flash and #12 Lagertha Rhyme — were first and second in the Gulf Cup Jan. 27, but they look as though they need to find more to figure here.

I’m willing to lay Taiba as a winning prospect here, probably at my peril, but I think Country Grammer offers better odds and close enough to an equal chance. However, given last year’s result, it’s impossible to ignore Emblem Road and Scotland Yard, and I’ll go with last year’s winner again at what may be reasonable odds.