By Ed McNamara
At 6-foot-5, he’s a towering figure, and as a trainer he’s a giant. John Gosden has done it all and done it everywhere, excelling on the biggest days in Europe, North America and the Middle East.
The 70-year-old Englishman has won major stakes from 5 furlongs to 2 3/8 miles, including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (three times), Epsom Derby (twice) and Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year ago, he won the second running of the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, with Mishriff. That was no shock except to the bettors, who let him go off at odds of 19-1.
Mishriff will go for an encore Saturday at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, where he’ll be more like 5-2 or 2-1. (He’s the 2-1 favorite at BUSR).
Drawing post 14 “obviously wasn’t ideal,” assistant trainer Thady Gosden said, “but he won from 12 last year. Hopefully, he will jump well and be able to run down the backstretch.”
He hasn’t raced since October, which may concern some, but thinking that John Gosden won’t have him at 100% off a four-month layoff is not wise. He’s one of the top horsemen of all time, and Mishriff’s owner, Prince Abdul Rahman al Faisal, calls him the “best trainer in the world.” Many would agree.
“I’ve never seen anybody so good with detail as John,” Prince Faisal said. “It’s ridiculous. I thought I was good with details, but I just say to him, ‘Do what you want.’”
Mishriff isn’t the greatest horse Gosden has trained. That distinction belongs to the mare Enable, a two-time Arc champion and 15-time winner (11 Group 1’s) in 19 races. But if Mishriff repeats Saturday, the $10-million winner’s share will make him the richest racehorse ever, eclipsing the Australian mare Winx’s total of $18,904,364.
“It was impressive that last year he was able to lay off the pace of the American horses and win at a mile and a furlong,” Gosden said. “He’s a year older and a little bigger, and he’s been training well, so let’s hope it continues like that.
“The plan has always been to come back for the Saudi Cup, and it looks like a mighty tough field, so it should be.”
“People look up the statistics and tell me I’ve trained 3,500 winners,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s the quality of the horses you remember, the ones that capture the imagination.”
A Saudi Cup repeat would put Mishriff in that category.
I think Mishriff’s biggest rival will be Mandaloun, the 9-2 second favorite with BUSR, and if Mishriff isn’t in top form, Brad Cox’s newly crowned Kentucky Derby champion could take him down.
Mandaloun (post 6) has the recency edge, and he looked very good last month when he ran down front-runner Midnight Bourbon late in the Louisiana Stakes at the Fair Grounds. Florent Geroux worked out a ground-saving trip before making his bid on the turn, and he’ll probably have to do that again to win the Saudi Cup.
“I think Mandaloun needs to take another step forward,” Cox said, “and I think he definitely can.”
Midnight Bourbon (9-1, BUSR) again looks like the pacesetter, but he’s a chronic teaser who lost ground in the stretch in his last nine races. No reason to believe he’ll break that habit Saturday.
I’m going to play Mishriff and Mandaloun to win, and I’ll also put both in a three-way exacta box with South American star Aero Trem (post 2), who looks like an overlay at 40-1. A year ago, 99-1 shot Great Scot finished third, one spot in front of eventual Horse of the Year Knicks Go, so these things can happen.
The picks: 1. Mishriff 2. Mandaloun 3. Aero Trem 4. Midnight Bourbon
I’ll also take a look at three stakes for 3-year-olds, the mile Saudi Derby and Oaklawn Park’s Honey Bee for fillies and the Rebel.
$1.5 million Saudi Derby, 1-mile, 3-year-olds
A one-turn mile should suit Bob Baffert’s Pinehurst, who can improve off his second-place finish behind Forbidden Kingdom in his 3-year-old debut, the 7-furlong San Vicente Stakes. Pinehurst chased the wire-to-wire winner throughout but never threatened. He should do better this time.
$300,000 Honey Bee (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-old fillies
It’s been 32 years since Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas won his third Kentucky Oaks, and it appears that at age 86 he has a live contender for the fillies’ Derby. Secret Oath crushed the Martha Washington by 7 1/4 lengths after winning an allowance by 8 1/4. The course-and-distance winner will be heavily favored — 3-2 morning line — to outrun five rivals and improve to 3-for-3 in Hot Springs.
$1 million Rebel (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
In any other year, Baffert’s intimidating cavalry — Newgrange, Messier, Rockefeller, Pinehurst, Blackadder, 2-year-old champion Corniche — would make him a strong choice to take another Kentucky Derby. But Baffert is suspended by Churchill Downs and his horses are prohibited from earning Derby qualifying points, putting his potential stars in limbo.
Newgrange (2) is 3-for-3 and comes off a convincing, 1 1/2-length victory in Oaklawn’s 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes. He overcame post 10, rallied wide at the quarter pole and drew off by 1 1/2 lengths under John Velazquez. I can’t find a logical reason to try to beat him, except for maybe his price (9-5 morning line).
Returning to challenge him are the horses who ran second and third, respectively, Barber Road (9) and Ben Diesel (7). I’m visualizing a rerun of the Southwest trifecta, in which case Barber Road and Ben Diesel would get 50 and 20 Derby points.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.