A successful first try on dirt has given hope to trainer Saeed bin Suroor that Benbatl can make his presence felt in the inaugural running of the Saudi Cup in Riyadh.
The $20million contest has attracted a red-hot contingent from America – but Benbatl is a three-time Group One winner in his own right, with form in the book to match most of the field.
While his running has been almost exclusively on turf – including when second to the mighty Winx in the Cox Plate last year – the six-year-old proved he can do it on dirt too, when winning at Meydan earlier this month.
That was in much calmer waters than he encounters at the weekend, but Bin Suroor has taken plenty of encouragement from what he saw.
His draw in stall three sees him inside the American speed horses, and the Godolphin handler has of course been here before – having switched Thunder Snow from grass to dirt to great effect, winning back-to-back Dubai World Cups.
He said: “Hopefully he can run well. We know he likes the dirt now.
“He’s been working well – and the timing is good, because as long as he is well the Dubai World Cup is another option for him on the dirt.
“The (1800m) distance is fine, and the surface doesn’t matter when it comes to the distance. If you look at the last time he ran, he ran very well going (1900m), just like he has on turf, and we can even go a mile and a quarter with him.
“You have seen his results in the past – he always runs well, whether in England, Australia or Dubai or anywhere. He has that Group One class like some of our best horses (have had).
“He will go back to England in the summer. He’ll have a break over the first half of the season, but hopefully he’ll be running in the second half of the season.
“He must have good ground, though – we saw at Ascot there is not much point running him when the ground is soft, like it was in the QEII.”
He added: “It would mean a lot for us to win. It is the first ever Saudi Cup and the first big international race in Saudi.
“It is a very important race and would be important for us to see him run well and win. He has been a very good Group One horse for us, and very versatile. I’m very happy with him and I think he will give a good run.”
Arguably top of the list of American horses to beat is the Jason Servis-trained Maximum Security, who shot to prominence last year when becoming the first horse ever to be disqualified from first place in the Kentucky Derby for causing interference.
There is absolutely no doubting his class – as he has proved since that disappointment at Churchill Downs, twice striking in Grade One company, most recently in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in December, where he readily accounted for Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Spun To Run.
Servis, who took the Kentucky reversal with admirable grace, said: “He’s been special. I like to keep him fresh. I think it helped him that he took baby steps earlier in his career.
“I would say with the shipping, this is his toughest test to date. He’s a May 15 foal, so technically he’s not four yet.
“I’m good with the post. I probably would have preferred a little more outside, but that’s fine. We were drawn seven in the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Haskell – and now the Saudi Cup.
“We’ll see what happens.”
A big race on the world stage would not be the same without a representative or two from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Flying the flag for Baffert on this occasion will be Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up McKinzie (drawn nine) – a horse who has always been close to Baffert’s heart – and Mucho Gusto (eight), who powered home in the Pegasus World Cup last time out.
Baffert said: “We can’t use the draw as an excuse. I think everything happens for a reason, and you have all those good horses right next to each other – the break is going to be very important, and it’s a challenge to come here.
“They’ve got the best of America, the best dirt horses. I heard about (the possibility of) this race a couple of years ago, $20million, and I didn’t think it was going to happen. It happened and I thought, ‘I hope I have one for it’.
“They could have retired McKinzie and sold him, but this race kept us in it – and they’re rolling the dice.
“Maximum Security is the horse to beat. He’s a good horse and he’s healthy – we know how good he is. Midnight Bisou is tough, she’s right there, and Mucho Gusto has just come into his own, McKinzie – all these horses on a given day are good horses, top horses.
“I think it’s pretty remarkable, and even Magic Wand has shown up – she shows up everywhere!
“I’ve been so blessed, it never gets old. There’s always a challenge out there, and that’s what I love about this race. I saw it and went, ‘wow, that would be something, to go over there and participate and have a good horse’. But one thing I’ve learned, you better bring a good one; you can’t bring a horse just to run in it, and I think we’ve brought two good ones.”
Trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Mike Smith, Midnight Bisou has her first start since being beaten as the odds-on favourite in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
“She’s all class,” said Jeff Bloom, who co-owns the prolific five-year-old in partnership with Allen Racing and Madaket Stables.
“The important thing is the filly adapts to pretty much anything you throw at her. Travelling over here really took nothing out of her, and she’s trained exceptionally well since she got here.
“We’ve always felt she’d be up to the challenge of facing the boys, and when we decided to keep her in training it was a no brainer. There’s a $20,000,000 ticket out there – let’s go ahead and take that chance.”
Magic Wand has been a real star for Aidan O’Brien, travelling all over the world and rarely running a bad race.
Drawn 12, the Galileo mare finished runner-up in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational for the second time at Gulfstream Park on her latest outing.
O’Brien said: “She seems to be in good form and everything seems well.
“We’ve had this race in mind for her for a long time. It’s her first time on dirt, but she’s been cantering on it and she seems happy on it. They say it’s a lovely surface there.
“She’s an incredible filly, the amount of travelling she’s done – she just loves travelling.
“We’re hoping she runs well.”
Elsewhere in the 14-strong field, Frankie Dettori partners Dubai World Cup second Gronkowski, and the Bill Mott-trained Tacitus carries the colours of Khalid Abdullah.