By Mike Farrell
Halfway around the world, King Abdulaziz Racetrack hosts the richest race of the year on Saturday, the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1).
This is the first time the race carries a Group 1 designation. Who says money can’t buy class?
If you offer enough, they will come … from all corners of the globe.
Mishriff is expected back from England to defend his title, having beaten Charlatan and Horse of the Year Knicks Go, two of our top-ranked handicap runners at the time, in last year’s renewal.
For this go round, Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon look like the leading U.S. based challengers.
Mandaloun declared 2021 Kentucky Derby winner; Medina Spirit DQ’d
They both tuned up for this in the Louisiana Stakes (G3) with Mandaloun coming out on top in his first start since the Haskell (G1) at Monmouth Park where he was awarded the win when Hot Rod Charlie was disqualified for impeding Midnight Bourbon.
“It was his first run in a while and he appears to have come out of it in good order,” trainer Brad Cox said, who found out Monday (Feb. 21st) he had won his first Kentucky Derby after 2021 first-place finisher Medina Spirit was disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun was declared the official winner by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Most of Midnight Bourbon’s luck has been bad, with the Haskell the most egregious example.
Trainer Steve Asmussen believes this can be the gilded stage where Midnight Bourbon makes his breakthrough statement.
“He is still in a physical and mental development that I think allows for him to possibly end up being the best horse in training in the world this year,” he said.
We’ll see how that prediction plays out in the desert this weekend.
Gettin’ ready for the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn
Back in the U.S., the Triple Crown Trail rolls into Oaklawn for the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2). We are now in the serious portion of the program where the races are worth 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner, making them in effect “Win and You’re In” contests.
Who will punch their Derby ticket in Hot Springs?
Perhaps Dash Attack, a major disappointment in the Southwest Stakes (G3) last month after starting the year with a win in the Smarty Jones.
Regular rider David Cohen blamed the fifth-place effort in the Southwest on a cuppy track, and some lost training days due to winter weather in Arkansas. Trainer Kenny McPeek tightened up the training heading into the Rebel.
“I know Kenny has tweaked some things with him, got a little more aggressive in the morning with him,” Cohen said.
Other likely runners include Barber Road, Ben Diesel, Chasing Time, Ethereal Road and Rich Strike.
And of course, a runner from Bob Baffert, an eight-time winner of the Rebel, but one disappointed trainer after his Medina Spirit was DQ’d from his Derby win after post-race test confirmed a medication violation.
Baffert did enter Newgrange, the winner of the Southwest, who is the 9-5 favorite in a field of 11.
Of course. Baffert remains banned from the Kentucky Derby, so any potential points accumulated by his runners are suspended. (Watch for owners of Baffert-trained Derby contenders to move their horses to another barn).
A Fair Grounds recap
You needed a very sharp handicapping pencil on Saturday to take down the 50 cent all-graded-stakes Pick-4 that paid $3,715.20 at the Fair Grounds. The sequence culminated with the Risen Star Stakes (G2), the first 50-point Derby qualifier of the year.
It got off to a chalky start as Olympiad turned in a track-record performance to win the Mineshaft Stakes (G3) as the even-money choice.
It was murkier from there. Cavalry Charge went gate to wire to hold on by a head at 35-1 in the Fair Grounds Stakes (G3) followed by a 17-1 upset by Turnerloose in the Rachel Alexandra (G2).
In the last leg, previously unbeaten Smile Happy was the 2-1 favorite in his season debut. He rallied alertly to get second in the Risen Star but there was no catching Epicenter who led all the way and galloped out strongly as the 7-2 second choice.
The fact Epicenter carried his speed 1 1/8 miles and finished with more in the tank bodes well for the son of Not This Time.
Harness racing awards
Switching breeds, consistency is a virtue and Test of Faith proved most virtuous of all.
She won 14 of 16 starts last season and was crowned harness racing’s Horse of the Year on Sunday night.
Test of Faith is the fourth 3-year-old filly to earn the sport’s highest honor, joining Rainbow Blue (2004), Bunny Lake (2001), and Fan Hanover (1981). She received 85 of the 146 votes cast by members of the U.S. Harness Writers Association. Niki Hill, the leading 2-year-old filly pacer, was a distant second with 19 votes.
Test of Faith finished second in the two races she didn’t win for the team of trainer Brett Pelling and driver David Miller. She earned $1.06 million for the partnership of Melvin Segal, Kentuckiana Racing Stable, and Eddie Gran.
Pelling now has trained two Horse of the Year winners with Test Of Faith joining Rocknroll Hanover (2005). Miller was the regular pilot of two previous Horse of the Year honorees, Always B Miki (2016) and No Pan Intended (2003).
Other honorees announced Sunday included Dexter Dunn as Driver of the Year and Richard “Nifty” Norman as Trainer of the Year.
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.