Nicholas Godfrey on the Saudi Cup

International racing expert Nicholas Godfrey looks ahead to the world’s most valuable race, the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racetrack on Saturday - live on Sky Sports Racing.

  • Tuesday 25 February
  • Blog
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MONEY, money, money. It seems like only yesterday that the Pegasus World Cup was launched, amid much Florida fanfare, to supersede the Dubai World Cup as the world’s most valuable race.

Actually, it was 2017 when Arrogate claimed the winner’s share of an unprecedented $12 million purse in the first running of the Gulfstream Park contest.

Get in a financial arms race, though, and you probably don’t want Saudi Arabia as any sort of rival. Three years later and the Pegasus has been blown entirely out of the water by the inaugural edition of the Saudi Cup, which on Saturday, at a single $20m stroke, will become the most valuable race in history and will be live on Sky Sports Racing.

Borrowing from the Dubai blueprint nearly 25 years ago, horse racing in a hitherto closeted nation will stake its claims to a legitimate place on the global map with a $29.2m racecard featuring a glittering array of world-class talent at King Abdulaziz Racecourse on the outskirts of Riyadh.

And make no mistake: the kingdom is thinking big. Four years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 was unveiled, outlining a bold project aiming to diversify the nation’s economy and reduce dependence on oil.
Tourism is hugely significant in that respect – and therefore so is top-level sport, of which the Saudi Cup is set to offer a stunningly ambitious example.

Watch the Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racetrack live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 29th February.

That said, Saudi Arabia is not a new venue for horse racing per se. The horse has been an integral part of Arab culture for centuries, and organised horse racing has existed in the Kingdom for 60 years; there are said to be about 9,000 thoroughbreds in the country.

International racing, though, is an entirely new concept for Saudi Arabia, which hopes to offer visitors a fresh perspective on a country that hitherto has been well off the beaten path for all but the most adventurous tourist. Assuming they could get a visa, that is; the eVisa has removed that particular obstacle.

If that can be taken as a sign of changing times, then the Saudi Cup must also fit into that category as horses, trainers and jockeys from Europe, North America and Japan descend on the kingdom for Saturday’s lucrative eight-race card – preceded on Friday’s ‘Kingdom Day’ by a male v female jockeys’ challenge, a ground-breaking event in terms of Saudi Arabian cultural norms. Nicola Currie flies the flag for Britain, with the likes of Frankie Dettori, Mike Smith and Yutaka Take on the other side.

It is, by any measure, a big deal, as per the event’s raison d’etre. “The introduction of the Saudi Cup as an international race is without doubt the most significant event in the history of horse racing in Saudi Arabia,” explains Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club Of Saudi Arabia. “It demonstrates our resolve to develop this great sport in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and also our ambition to become a leading player on horse racing’s world stage.

“This is an event we plan to last for decades,” he goes on. “We hope it will be one of the most sought after races on the international calendar. We would also like it to be an opportunity for people to come and visit this part of the world, see the culture, the people and understand it.”

Although the $20m centrepiece may be a dirt race – hence all the Americans – among the supporting acts come three races on a new turf track specifically installed for the purpose. Dettori and his colleagues William Buick, James Doyle and Daniel Tudhope tested it out last month, reportedly impressed with the improbable lushness of the green they found in the middle of the desert.

Watch the Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racetrack live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 29th February.

Dettori, who says he is “super excited” to be riding Gronkowski in the Saudi Cup, is also a fan of the main track in Riyadh, which he describes as“probably the best dirt track I’ve ridden anywhere in my life”.

He adds: “It’s very exciting, very interesting. It’s going to attract the best horses in the world. It’s phenomenal that these days we can race for $20m.”

What is more, this is no one-shot deal. Already, those behind the concept are looking to the future, projecting a blueprint for a sort of Gulf circuit also including better-established venues like Meydan and even Bahrain, which also hosted its first international race – albeit at a rather less grandiose level – in November last year.

That’s for the future, however. For the present, as might be expected, a starry cast has been assembled for the inaugural running of the world’s most valuable race. Indeed, given such a talented international line-up heavy with top American-based dirt specialists, it is hard to erase memories of the first Dubai World Cup – albeit with one notable exception. Close, but there’s no Cigar.

Be that as it may, the Saudi Cup still looks a fascinating race with a host of leading performers from diverse racing jurisdictions led by a proper headline act in last year’s US champion three-year-old Maximum Security.

No horse in the States has a higher profile than this Jason Servis-trained colt, beaten only once in nine races (and that was in a preparatory race). His career record officially reads at only seven victories owing to his controversial disqualification in the Kentucky Derby, where he was first past the post and clearly the winner on merit before the stewards demoted him for interference on the home turn at Churchill Downs.

Maximum Security won three other Grade 1 events, posting the best performance of his life on his most recent start when he made all to win the Cigar Mile at Belmont Park. A repeat performance over an extra furlong, which is no problem to judge from the Kentucky Derby – would make him hard to master. Yet with Dubai flyers North America and Capezzano presumably desperate for the lead, there is always the prospect of an enervating battle up front.

Of the favourite’s compatriots, champion racemare Midnight Bisou is tough, admirable and prolific but now faces male horses for the first following an odds-on defeat at the Breeders' Cup, McKinzie might be compromised by the pace scenario, while the question over his Bob Baffert-trained stablemate Mucho Gusto is whether he is actually good enough. The Pegasus was a modest contest, though he may well have improved markedly from three to four.

The reliable Tacitus will be running on when other cry enough. Though the son of Tapit is probably just lacks a touch of star quality, he deliberately avoided the Breeders’ Cup Classic with the Saudi Cup in mind. Moreover, his connections demand respect in this context, given that his trainer is Cigar’s handler Bill Mott and he carries the pink-and-green silks of the Juddmonte operation, whose owner Khalid Abdullah would doubtless relish a landmark victory in his homeland.

Japan’s top dirt horse Chrysoberyl is worth a look. Although his victory in Japan’s top dirt race, the Champions Cup (former Japan Cup Dirt), was hard fought, he has form at this distance and, while he has the tactical speed to race prominently, doesn’t need the lead.

Another that really must command attention is Benbatl considering his auspicious debut on dirt at Meydan last month in the second round of the Al Maktoum Challenge. This is much tougher, of course, but the distance isn’t a problem and the pick of his turf form makes him one of the best horses in the world.

Also worth a second glance in a potentially thrilling contest Gronkowski. Now that he has a couple of runs under his belt, the Dubai World Cup runner-up is expected to get a lot closer this time under Frankie Dettori. He’ll be grinding them down as others falter down the long Riyadh stretch.

On the other hand, the switch to dirt is asking a lot of Magic Wand as a daughter of Galileo, while the domestic Saudi representatives – Mjjack and Great Scot, formerly trained by Karl Burke and Tom Dascombe respectively –  will need to have improved out of all recognition from their British form to take a hand in what looks a tremendous race.

Frankly, short of adding Enable, it would be difficult to imagine a more compelling field. As the man said, if you build it, they will come.

Then again, massive prizes, free entry and paid travel expenses probably help. Just listen to Bob Baffert. “I’m going,” says the Californian-based training legend. “$20 million gets me off the couch.”

He’s not alone in that.

TOP TEN WORLD'S MOST VALUABLE RACES

Race Value Racecourse
1. Saudi Cup$20mKing Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia
2. Dubai World Cup$12mMeydan, UAE
3. The Everest$9.6m (A$14m)Randwick, Australia
4. Breeders' Cup Classic$6mKeeneland*, USA
= Dubai Sheema Classic$6mMeydan, UAE
= Dubai Turf$6mMeydan, UAE
7. Arima Kinen$5.6m (¥648m)Nakayama, Japan
= Japan Cup$5.6m (¥648m)Tokyo, Japan
9. Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe$5.54m (€5m)ParisLongchamp, France
10. Melbourne Cup$5.5m (A$8m)Flemington, Australia
*run at a different venue each year

Watch the Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racetrack live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 29th February.


Nicholas Godfrey on the Saudi Cup
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