Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The world's richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, with all its trimmings, takes center stage in world horse racing this weekend, with a bow to another important step down the road to the Kentucky Derby.
For $20 million, we know where to start:
The Saudi Cup
Months ago, when the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia announced it would sponsor a $20 million race at 9 furlongs on the dirt, ace American trainer Bob Baffert said that, whatever the misgiving about traveling to a new venue, "If you put up $20 million, you're going to get good horses in your starting gate."
Saturday's race featured more than just "good horses." It got a truly stellar turnout from as far afield as Japan. And Baffert brought two from the United States -- Grade I Pegasus World Cup winner Mucho Gusto and the consistent McKinzey.
They're joined by Maximum Security, whose disqualification from victory in the 2019 Kentucky Derby certainly would be eased with the $10 million winner's share Saturday, and Midnight Bisou, arguably the top U.S. filly in training.
The international contingent also is deep. Godolphin's top world traveler, Benbatl, won his first-ever start on dirt just weeks ago in Dubai in preparation for this, and perhaps for the Dubai World Cup four weeks later on the Meydan dirt.
Chrysoberyl, Japan's reigning dirt champion, passed up last weekend's February Stakes to run in this despite some misgivings by his trainer about the difference in racing surfaces.
Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien brings Magic Wand to try her luck on dirt after an agonizing string of runner-up finishes in Group 1 races on turf all over the world. Other familiar names are Gronkowski, beaten only a nose in last year's Dubai World Cup; Tacitus, trained in the United States by Bill Mott, who won the inaugural Dubai World Cup with Cigar in 1996; Cappezano and Gold Dream.
The Cup is part of an eight-race program that also includes the first-ever turf races in Saudi Arabia, to be run over a course purpose-built for them. The grass feature, the $2.5 million Longines Turf Handicap, also drew a top-level international field.
Tune in again after the races for the results -- and what they will mean for the international racing schedule going forward.
Also on the international front:
Parsimony, trained by Doug O'Neil, landed Thursday night's $175,000 Curlin Stakes, a potential stepping stone to the $12 million Dubai World Cup night next month. The gray son of Dominus waited behind Korean runner Today until jockey William Buick kicked him in to gear for a 2 3/4-lengths victory. Ambassadorial was third as Parsimony finished 2,000 meters in 2:05.05.
"That was very pleasing," O'Neil assistant Leandro Mora said. "It was a perfect ride from William. We said when we arrived that this was the horse we hoped could be a Dubai World Cup night horse. He ran very well first time, but we knew he would improve from the run, so we came here today pretty hopeful."
Buick also scored on Godolphin's Well of Wisdom in the $175,000 Meydan Classic at 1,600 meters, leading all the way for trainer Charlie Appleby. Swedish runner Silent Night was second, just a neck back, as the World Cup Carnival continues to produce international results.
"We were pretty bullish beforehand and he has not let us down," Appleby said. "He has such a willing attitude and has really stuck his head down and battled. William was very pleased with him and particularly his willingness and determination to win again."
Saturday's Australian Guineas at Flemington has the promising Alligator Blood against the only horse who's beaten him, Super Seth. Catalyst, who finished second to Alligator Blood in the C S Hayes, also returns for another shot.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth could prove a key heat along this year's Triple Crown trail. The 2-1 favorite -- indeed, one of the Kentucky Derby favorites -- is Dennis's Moment. The Tiznow colt, trained by Dale Romans, was the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but stumbled badly at the start, losing all chance.
He returns for the first time here, needing a good showing to maintain his status. He won two straight before the Breeders' Cup misadventure and Romans remains very high on his prospects.
The opposition in the Fountain of Youth includes Chance It, the winner and runner-up from the Jan. 4 Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream, and Ete Indien, runner-up to Tiz the Law in the Feb. 1 Grade III Holy Bull. The others need significant improvement to compete, which is why we run the races.
The winner of the Fountain of Youth receives 50 points toward a Kentucky Derby start with the minor placings awarded 20, 10 and 5 points. A win should guarantee a spot in the Louisville starting gate.
On the Fountain undercard, the $100,000 Swale Stakes, at 6 furlongs, has a few Triple Crown nominees but looks like a refuge for those unlikely to go 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May. Nonetheless, there are some impressive performers including Scarto, Shivaree and Smash Factor -- a "Triple S" trifecta that would not pay much.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park has a competitive field with a potential standout in Spice Is Nice. The Curlin filly, a $1,050,000 purchase at the Keeneland September yearling sale, was impressive in her only previous race, winning a 1-mile maiden event over the Gulfstream track by 12 lengths, earning an 84 Beyer Speed Figure.
Among the others, Bayerness won both starts as a 2-year-old in Kentucky and makes her 3-year-old debut. Chart, a Lea filly, won impressively at first asking at Tampa Bay Jan. 19. Jean Marie has won three straight at Gulfstream and Gulfstream West.
The $200,000 Grade II Mac Diarmida on Saturday at Gulfstream Park is the weekend U.S. turf highlight. The 1 3/8-miles event has Zulu Alpha, the upset winner of the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational in his last start. The 7-year-old Street Cry gelding faces a substantial field including consistent Gulfstream performers A Thread of Blue and Sadler's Joy.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park is for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles. It does have a full field. It does not have a solid favorite. Fancy Liquor, Fenwick Station and Famished all look likely -- a "Three F" trifecta that might produce a nice return.
Six 3-year-olds are in for Saturday's $75,000 Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds, 1 1/16 miles on the lawn. Hieronymus is the 7-5 favorite after two consecutive wins over the course.
Filly & Mare Turf
Empressof the Nile makes her 2020 debut as the lukewarm 4-1 morning-line favorite in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III The Very One at Gulfstream Park. The 6-year-old Pioneerof the Nile mare raced competitively in tough company last year in New York, winning a minor stakes at Aqueduct before a short break.
Three-year-old fillies tackle 1 1/16 miles in the $150,000 Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes Saturday at Gulfstream. A dozen entered, ranging from maiden winners to minor stakes winners, without much evidence on which to sort them out. Abscond, a Blame filly, is the early pick after finishing a close third in the Ginger Brew Stakes on Jan. 4.
An overflow crowd turned out for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Canadian Turf at 1 mile over the Gulfstream Park greensward. It's a tough one to figure with several coming off either layoffs or a poor effort.
The eye-catchers include Flying Scotsman, in from Fair Grounds; Louder Than Bombs, in the money in five of seven starts over the course; and Gidu, second in the Grade III Tropical Park Turf Jan. 11 over the course and distance. Mr. Dumas makes his first start for trainer Mike Maker and had some nice races last year as a 3-year-old.
Two of the favorites, Valedictorian and Munchkin Money, are drawn outside in a big field for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Honey Fox for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park. That could clear the way for Atomic Blonde, drawn in the No. 2 hole, who comes off a win in the South Beach Stakes over course and distance a month ago.
Nine will go in Saturday's $200,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita. It's another you-pick-em with a rare Bob Baffert-trained starter, Ra'ad as one of the long shots after finishing fifth in the Grade 2 San Vicente on the dirt.
Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile drew a big and very tough field. Run around one turn, the even has the 1-2-3 finishers Grade III Fred W. Hooper on Jan. 25 -- Phat Man, Zenden and Rare Form; last year's Grade III Gotham winner Haikal, who looked sharp in a prep race after a long absence; Grade I Pegasus World Cup also-rans Mr. Freeze (second), Bodexpress (fifth) and True Timber (eighth), and the versatile Hog Creek Hustle, who finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita two starts back.
A full and well-matched field will go to the post in Saturday's $60,000 Dixie Poker Ace Stakes at 1 mile at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Punters recovering from Mardi Gras might generate a new headache trying to figure that out.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Six are in for Saturday's $125,000 Spring Fever Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The morning-line finds Break Even and Amy's Challenge the favorites. Break Even ran off six straight wins last year, including the Grade II Eight Belles on Kentucky Derby weekend, then finished second in the Grade II Prioress at Saratoga before going to the sidelines. Amy's Challenge was fourth in the American Beauty Stakes at Oaklawn Feb. 1 after a nine-months layoff.
Nine are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Bernardini at Aqueduct, to go 1 5/16 miles. The morning-line favorite is Chilean-bred Leitone who seeks his first win since returning from Florida in January.