Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The world's richest horse race has attracted a field worthy of its status with top-ranked competitors from around the globe lining up for the initial running of the $20 million Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh Feb. 29.
And the Saudi Cup itself is only the cherry atop a day of racing with total purses of $29.2 million that has drawn 66 horses from overseas, 21 of them already Grade or Group 1 winners. Among them, they have accounted for 32 top-level wins.
While the fields remain subject to late changes, the eager participation from around the world is impressive as few international owners or trainers have experience racing in Saudi Arabia and the infrastructure, long established for local racing, is unknown to foreigners.
"The establishment of the Saudi Cup is a great moment in the history of horse racing in Saudi Arabia and I am gratified that the global racing community has embraced our new concept with such enthusiasm," said HRH Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Cup, to be contested at 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) on the dirt, has a distinctly American flavor. The field includes Much Gusto, winner of last month's Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, and McKinzie, a stablemate in trainer Bob Baffert's barn. Also in the mix is Maximum Security, who has gone on to multiple graded stakes glory since being disqualified from victory in last year's Kentucky Derby.
Midnight Bisou, winner of seven of her last eight starts for trainer Steve Asmussen, joins Irish-trained globetrotter Magic Wand as the distaff contingent in the race. The other Americans are Gift Box, trained by John Sadler, and Tacitus, conditioned by Bill Mott -- both multiple graded stakes winners.
Dubai-based and Saeed Bin Suroor-trained Benbatl celebrated the announcement of his nomination with a handy victory Thursday in the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 in Dubai. Another UAE-based contender, Gronkowski, was third. Grade 1 stars Chrysoberyl and Gold Dream, trained by Hidetaka Otonashi and Mitsuru Hashida respectively, represent Japan in the Saudi Cup.
One of the subtexts of the race day will be whether this is the start of a new, informal "circuit" of multimillion-dollar dirt races encompassing the Pegasus, the Saudi Cup and the $12 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan in late March. Should Mucho Gusto perform on one month's rest after an intercontinental journey, he would provide support for the concept. More likely is a Saudi-Dubai "double" which requires a journey of only some 625 miles.
The remainder of the Feb. 29 card, including three races on a brand-new turf course, another first for Saudi racing, continues the theme of world-wide excellence.
Deirdre, a Group 1 winner in both England and Japan, tops an announced field of eight for the $1 million Neom Turf Cup at 2,100 meters. The field for this event also represents France, Ireland, England, the United States and Bahrain.
Five of the eight runners named to the $1.5 million Saudia Sprint at 1,200 meters on the dirt represent the United States. Prominent among those are four-time Grade I winner Imperial Hint, whose resume also includes a third-place finish in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen last March, and Shancelot, second in November's Breeders' Cup Sprint. Dubai-based runners Drafted and Gladiator King will provide some tough competition in a likely preview of this year's Golden Shaheen.
The 2018 Melbourne Cup winner, Cross Counter, will contest the $2.5 million Longines Turf Handicap at 3,000 meters, facing rivals from Ireland, England, France and the United Arab Emirates. Among the UAE-based runners is Dee Ex Bee, the 2018 Investec Derby runner-up.
The $1 million 1351 Turf Sprint at 1,351 meters features French-bred Suedois, already a winner at this year's Dubai World Cup Carnival; Godolphin runners Glorious Journey, who won the Group 2 Al Fahadi Fort at Meydan last month, and Space Blues, who was competitive at the highest level in France last fall; Royal Intervention, a Group 2 winner at Baden-Baden in Germany last fall for owner Lord Andrew Lloyd-Weber.
Six are named to the $800,000 Saudi Derby at 1 mile on the dirt. Among them are Billy Batts, second in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf; Rowdy Yates, recent winner of the Riley Allison Derby in New Mexico; Full Flat, an American-bred, Japan-based colt who finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; and three Godolphin runners from Dubai -- Final Song, third in the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial, winner of the Dubai Trophy a Meydan, and Well of Wisdom, second in Group 2 events in Germany and France last fall.
Rounding out the program are the $500,000 Jockey Club Local Handicap and the $1.9 million Obaiya Arabian Classic.
The fields for each race will be completed with the addition of two local runners, which will be selected following the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques race day Feb. 8.
"Since the launch of the Saudi Cup less than seven months ago, the level of support and assistance we have received from our friends in the world of horse racing has been quite overwhelming, and I could not be happier with the quality of the horses set to contest our big races in just over three weeks' time," said Tom Ryan, director of strategy and international racing for the JCSA.