By Richard Rosenblatt
Brace yourself for a long day at the races on Saturday, starting off in the morning with the richest day in horse racing from Saudi Arabia and finishing in the early evening with the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park.
The $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) features defending champion Mishriff taking on the likes of newly crowned Kentucky Derby winner Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon to cap off a $31.5 million card of eight races that begins at 8 a.m. ET and will be broadcast by FOX Sports’ FS2.
Post time for the third edition of the 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racecourse is 12:40 p.m. Mishriff, trained by John and Thady Gosden is the 2-1 favorite (BUSR odds) leaving from the outside No. 14 post.
“It’s a race which looks to have a lot of depth, a really fabulous race actually, a proper international Group 1,’’ John Gosden said.
There are several other races of interest on the card, including Bob Baffert-trained Pinehurst headlining the field for the $1.5 million Saudi Derby (G3) with a post time of 11:10 a.m.
While the road to the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1) makes a stop at Oaklawn for the $1 million Rebel and the $300,000 Honeybee (G3), champion older dirt female Letruska kicks off her 6-year-old campaign in the $150,000 Royal Delta (G3) at Gulfstream Park.
It’s a busy day of action on track, after a chaotic week off the track – specifically the disqualification of Medina Spirit as the 2021 Derby winner (for post-race positive for a prohibited race-day medication) and Mandaloun elevated to the winner following a decision by Kentucky stewards.
The decision leaves Baffert, down to a six-time Derby winner, with a whole bunch of top 3-year-olds that are ineligible to earn Derby qualifying points under his care. In addition to Pinehurst, Baffert also trains 9-5 Rebel favorite Newgrange as well as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Corniche and Messier.
Also this week, British champion jockey Oisin Murphy was suspended for 14 months for not following Covid-19 protocols and for alcohol levels above the permitted limit. He rode Marche Lorraine, who takes on the boys in the Saudi Cup, to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) at Del Mar in November.
The temperatures should be cooling down in Riyadh as the Saudi Cup takes place in the evening (local time). In Saudi Arabia, the opening race of the day is at 6 p.m. local time – the $1.5 Neom Turf Cup.
At Oaklawn, the weather report calls for temperatures in the 40s most of the day and a 40% chance of rain.
In addition to FS2’s coverage of racing in Saudi Arabia, FOX Sports’ “America’s Day at the Races” will televise live racing from Aqueduct, Oaklawn, and other tracks from 1-7 p.m. (ET) on FS2, and TVG will have its usual coverage of races.
On with the races (all times are ET):
After the Neom Turf Cup opens Saudi Cup day, other undercard races include the $2.5 million Red Sea Turf Handicap (G3); the $1 million Jockey Club Local Handicap; the $2 million Obaiya Arabian Classic (G2); the $1.5 million Saudi Derby (G3); and the $1.5 million Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3). And then it’s the biggie:
$20 million Saudi Cup (G1), 1 1/8 miles, 4-year-olds and up
Their BUSR odds are 2-1 for defending champ Mishriff, 9-2 for Kentucky Derby winner Mandaloun, 9-1 for Midnight Bourbon, 10-1 for Magny Cours, and 12-1 for Marche Lorraine. If you want a longshot, there’s 40-1 Making Miracles.
A one-turn 1 1/8 mile on dirt race does not happen often in America and racing on dirt does not happen often in Europe, so those factors could play a part in the outcome.
And there’s the Bob Baffert factor as he sends out Country Grammar at 12-1 for his first race in nine months. Last year, Baffert’s Charlatan was edged out for the win by Mishriff; and in the inaugural Saudi Cup, his Mucho Gusto ran fourth and McKinzie 11th.
“Mandaloun and Mishriff are likely the horses to beat and are both going to be tough,’’ Baffert said. “I think our horse is going to run well. His races before he went on the shelf were pretty impressive and he’s proven that he’s a fighter.”
Cox says Mandaloun is ready for the test. And even though his Derby win came via DQ of the first-place finisher in the Derby – and the Haskell for that matter – his official record stands at seven wins from 10 starts.
“He’s a strong horse. He was really, really good and moving around great,’’ Cox said after watching the 4-year-old take to the track one day this week. “So far everything looks really good, I believe we are on track for a big effort.”
$300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-old fillies
Look who has the favorite? Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas sends out 3-2 top choice Secret Oath in a field of six with Kentucky Oaks (G1) qualifying points of 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers.
Already a five-time winner of the Honeybee (1988-91, and 2007), Lukas’ filly already has 10 Oaks points from her 7 ¼-length romp in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn on Dec. 31.
Luis Contreras will be aboard the filly from post 3.
Yuugirl, at 5-2, makes her 3-year-old debut for trainer Rodolphe Brisset. In her final start of 2021, she ran second in the Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs (Secret Oath was fifth in that race). Hall of Famer John Velazquez will be aboard leaving from post 2.
$1 million Rebel Stakes (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
Embattled trainer Bob Baffert takes another step on the Triple Crown trail when he sends out unbeaten Newgrange in a field of 11 with Derby qualifying points of 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers – unless it’s Newgrange.
Nonetheless, Newgrange is the horse to beat at 9-5, leaving from post 2 with John Velazquez aboard. The winner’s share of the purse is $600,000.
His 3-for-3 record includes wins in the Sham (G3) and the Southwest. The next four finishers in the Southwest are back again for the Rebel — Barber Road, Ben Diesel, Kavod, and Dash Attack. Keep an eye on Chasing Time from trainer Steve Asmussen’s stable. He comes in off a 7 ¾-length victory in a mile allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn on Jan 14.
A four-time Grade 1 winner in 2021, Letruska is back for her 6-year-old season, and is the heavy 2-5 favorite in a field of seven.
After a disappointing 10th in the BC Distaff, the bay mare trained by Fausto Gutierrez was the popular choice as the Eclipse Award winner in her division. Her Grade 1 wins came in the Apple Blossom, the Ogden Phipps, the Personal Ensign and the Spinster.
“This is a horse that took all the steps to a championship,’’ Gutierrez said. “She came from a foreign country (Mexico) and arrived here. She took it step by step and finally last year she won six graded races, four Grade 1. She’s a great horse.”
“She can still run because she’s in very good condition. I think this is the perfect spot to come back,” Gutierrez said.
Stronach Stables’ Green Light Go is the 6-5 favorite I this one-turn mile, which drew a field of seven.
Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, the 5-year-old Hard Spun bay comes into the race off a nine-length win in a 1-mile optional-claimer on Jan. 13.
Dylan Davis has the mount and leaves from the rail.
Todd Pletcher-trained Waxman is the second choice at 7-2, leaving from post 2 under Jose Lezcano. The 4-year-old has a career record of 5-3-2-0 and will be competing in is first stakes race.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.