By Mike Farrell
Give the folks at King Abdulaziz Racecourse and the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia credit for staging a second edition of the $20 million Saudi Cup on Saturday.
Who would cast blame if they tossed in the towel after last year’s debacle?
Launching an international racing spectacular is daunting under ideal conditions and circumstances. This race has already been down a rocky road in its brief existence.
Yet here it comes again with a field of 14 topped by U.S. handicap division stars and Grade 1 winners Knicks Go and Charlatan. There is much to be said for persistence.
The first Saudi Cup was a terrific race with Maximum Security besting Midnight Bisou. By all initial impressions, the race was a rousing success.
Then it turned ugly when Jason Servis, Maximum Security’s trainer, was snared in a horse-doping scandal. The $10 million Saudi Cup winning purse was impounded and remains unrewarded.
Then add in the COVID-19 outbreak which endlessly complicates international travel.
Through the controversy and the pandemic restrictions, the show will go on without spectators as a health precaution. The good news: the horses and their traveling crews all arrived without incident and are reportedly training in good order.
Since this is contested on dirt, the U.S. runners have the edge. Even though our handicap ranks are depleted due to retirements at the end of 2020, the Saudi Cup attracted two of the best we have to offer.
Knicks Go, a brazen speedball, will be the one to catch following front-running victories in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1).
Charlatan, also blessed with abundant early speed, missed most of his 3-year-old season due to injury. He returned to capture the end-of-season
Malibu Stakes (G1). Trainer Bob Baffert opted to skip the Pegasus to target the Saudi Cup.
“He has raw talent. He’s just so good. The one-turn mile and an eighth here should be just perfect for him,” said Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s assistant who made the trip to the desert.
Will Charlatan, the fresher horse, have the edge?
Brad Cox, Knicks Go’s trainer, admits they might be pushing things.
“This race is back a little quick, but one thing that gives us confidence is that he won the Pegasus without Lasix and this race is without Lasix, too,” Cox said. “Another thing is this is five weeks from the Pegasus, and it was five weeks between his allowance win where he broke the track record at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup.”
The Knicks Go versus Charlatan race-within-the-race makes this a fascinating showdown. Both will be firing hard when the latch springs.
Every trainer will tell you the break from the starting gate is one of the most critical components of any race. That statement is never truer than when two Grade 1 winners both committed to forward positions throw down with the richest prize in the sport on the line.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.