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$20 million Saudi Cup dominates weekend horse racing

By
Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Knicks Go, seen winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland, is among the favorites for Saturday's $20 million Saudi Cup. Photo by Alex Evers, Eclipse Sportswire, courtesy of Breeders' Cup
Knicks Go, seen winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland, is among the favorites for Saturday's $20 million Saudi Cup. Photo by Alex Evers, Eclipse Sportswire, courtesy of Breeders' Cup

Feb. 19 (UPI) The $20 million Saudi Cup program dominates a busy weekend of Thoroughbred racing, drawing top horses from around the world to an event that's succeeded despite being born and raised during the pandemic.

The program is top heavy with American runners Charlatan, Knicks Go, Tacitus and others in the Cup itself, and Channel Maker a likely favorite in the middle-distance turf feature. But there's top talent throughout the two-day program from around the world.

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The $1.5 million Saudi Derby features Rebel's Romance and the filly Soft Whisper from Dubai against a tough field with Cowan set to test the form of American 3-year-olds against the international set.

The big races are Saturday. Friday's feature at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh is the new Saudi International Handicap for jurisdictions in Part II and Part II of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities standards.

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The program also has the second running of the International Jockey Challenge, won last year by Swiss rider Sibylle Vogt.

We'll have all the results in the weekend report.

Meanwhile, Grade 1 action returns to Japan, which also hosts the weekend's only official prep race for the Kentucky Derby.

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There are three Group 1 events in Australia. The Emir's Trophy in Qatar, while eclipsed this year by the Saudi races, remains a top-notch event. And, we have some interesting results from Thursday's Carnival races in Dubai.

On the U.S. front, Laurel Park tries again Saturday to run the stakes-laden program canceled last weekend by abysmal weather while Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita contribute graded stakes action.

From Riyadh to Tokyo to Melbourne is a lot of ground to cover so let's get going.

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The Road to the Roses

Mother Nature continues to hammer the Kentucky Derby program with Oaklawn Park's important Southwest Stakes now postponed for the third time -- now, until the final weekend of February.

The Southwest, with at least three major Kentucky Derby contenders expected, originally was slated for Presidents Day, Feb. 15. That was pushed back to Feb. 20, then to Feb. 21 and, on Tuesday, to Saturday, Feb. 27.

The two-week delay is unfortunate for horses still looking for their first start as 3-year-olds and, assuming the race does go on Feb. 27, leaves only nine weeks until Derby Day for trainers who would like to get another race into their contenders.

"This probably knocks the [March 20] Louisiana Derby out of play," said Brad Cox, who trains Southwest entrant Essential Quality.

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"Our attention will probably turn to the [April 3] Blue Grass at Keeneland, where he has had some success, or the week after that the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. Those are the races that are in play after the Southwest."

The dearth of domestic Derby preps means the only weekend action is in Japan in Sunday's Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse.

The Hyacinth is the third of four races in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" and offers 30 points to the winner, which will put that horse atop the rankings.

Neither of the two previous winners is contesting the Hyacinth, which leaves the 1,600-meters event wide open. But the issue will be decided in the final round, The Fukuryu Stakes on March 27 at Nakayama awards 40 points to the winner.

Assuming no further intervention by Old Man Winter, next weekend will have two "points" races -- the Southwest and the John Battaglia Memorial on the Turfway Park all-weather course. Both award points on the 10-4-2-1 scale.

Other weekend racing:

Gulfstream Park

Mrs. Danvers and Eres Tu are the oddsmaker's choices in a field of eight assembled for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Royal Delta for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.

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Mrs. Danvers, a 4-year-old Tapit filly trained by Shug McGaughey, has missed a top-three finish only once in eight starts and was last seen winning the Grade III Comely Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 27.

Eres Tu ("Are You" in Spanish), a 5-year-old mare by Malibu Moon, won all three starts last year after contesting the Oaks series at Fair Grounds in 2019, finishing fourth in the Oaks itself.

Laurel Park

The Maryland track on Saturday picks up the stakes-laden schedule that was weathered out last weekend.

The rescheduled $250,000 Grade III General George, 7 furlongs, has a field of 10 featuring Funny Guy, Share the Ride and Laki.

Funny Guy, a 5-year-old son of Big Brown, has been toiling successfully against fellow New York-breds and comes off a second in the Say Florida Sandy Stakes at the Big A.

Eight signed up for the $250,000 Grade III Runhappy Barbara Fritchie for fillies and mares, also 7 furlongs. The 8-5 morning-line favorite, Hello Beautiful, is drawn on the outside of seven rivals. She has won three straight, all at Laurel.

Laurel also has four other $100,000 stakes Saturday. The Wide Country and Miracle Wood, for 3-year-old and 3-year-old fillies, should be watched for clues to the Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan.

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Santa Anita

Charmaine's Mia and Mucho Unusual top a field of 10 for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Buena Vista for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the turf.

Charmaine's Mia, a 5-year-old daughter of The Factor, won the Grade III Las Cienegas in her first California start for trainer Phil D'Amato on Jan. 9 after racing exclusively at Woodbine and Gulfstream Park earlier in her career.

Mucho Unusual, a 5-year-old mare by Mucho Macho Man, was 12th in the Maker's Mark Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf but since has won the Grade III Robert J. Frankel and the Grade III Megahertz, both at Santa Anita.

Tampa Bay Downs

Entries were pending at press time for Sunday's $100,000 Turf Dash and $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares, both at 5 furlongs on the green course.

Aqueduct

My Boy Tate faced only three rivals in Monday's $100,000 Hollie Hughes Stakes for New York-breds and he dealt with them effectively.

With Manny Franco riding, the 7-year-old Boys at Toscanova gelding dawdled at the back of the quartet, launched a bid at the top of the stretch and ran by to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

Big Engine, Tribecca and Amundson picked up the pieces. My Boy Tate ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.85.

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Santa Anita

Superstition was in the early mix in Monday's $100,000 Wishing Well Stakes for fillies and mares, got to the lead with a furlong to run and won by 1 1/2 lengths. Oleksandra rallied from well back to finish second, 1 3/4 lengths better than Constantia. Superstition, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper filly, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:14.22 with Flavien Prat in charge.

Around the world, around the clock

As noted, the Saudi Cup is the big deal on the world scene and Japan is the whole ball of wax in the Kentucky Derby picture. But there's a whole lotta shaking going on elsewhere.

Japan

The February Stakes is the first Grade 1 race of the Japanese year. It's 1,600 meters on the Tokyo Racecourse dirt and has produced some important horses.

This time around, the nation's reigning dirt champion, Chuwa Wizard, is off to Saudi Arabia to contest the $20 million Saudi Cup. It takes a lot to outbid the Japan Racing Association for top horses but the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia has done it.

Lacking the star, look to the results of a couple of prep races this year -- the Grade 3 Negishi Stakes, run at Tokyo over 1,400 meters in January, and the Grade 2 Tokai TV Hai Tokai Stakes, which was run at Chukyo on a sloppy track over 1,800 meters, also in January.

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Auvergne, a 5-year-old son of Red Falcon, won the Chukyo event. Red le Zele, a 5-year-old by Lord Kanaloa, was the Negishi victor. Both are in Sunday's field.

Another to watch is Café Pharoah, an American Pharoah colt who disappointed in the Champions Cup in his final start of 2020 but otherwise has a strong record.

He also has champion jockey Christophe Lemaire aboard for trainer Noriyuki Hori. Inti, the 2019 February Stakes winner, has had some difficulty maintaining concentration of late and jockey Yutaka Take will try to fix that.

The race is a "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Del Mar.

Hong Kong

Sha Tin Racecourse has three big events Sunday as the Year of the Ox hits full stride.

The marquee event is the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup, with Golden Sixty shooting for his 13th straight win.

The Medaglia d'Oro gelding has emerged as Hong Kong's star of stars, but faces 2,000 meters for the first time since winning the BMW Hong Kong Derby some 11 months ago. He also faces reigning Horse of the Year Exultant, who is a confirmed stayer.

Golden Sixty's rider, Vincent Ho, said he's not concerned about the bump up in distance.

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"He's feeling well and we're confident," Ho said. "A mile and 2,000 meters -- I don't think there's a problem. He can still sprint home over the last 400 meters in the same time."

The Gold Cup is partnered by the Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup, featuring a field full of horses who have been chasing Golden Sixty at shorter distances, and the Hong Kong Classic Cup -- the middle leg of the 4-year-old Classic Series that finishes with the BMW Hong Kong Derby.

The historic Hong Kong Derby is a highlight of the season for fans and a primary target for local owners and Sunday's race might help sort out a still-muddled picture for that key event.

Australia

Three Group 1 events are set for Saturday at Caulfield.

The 1,400-meters Melbourne Futurity has 10 takers -- an excellent assemblage including Behemoth, a multiple Group 1 winner last season; Streets of Avalon, winner of the Group 1 C.F. Orr Stakes in his last start; Group 1 Caulfield Stakes and Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes winner Arcadia Queen; and Group 1 Epsom Stakes winner Probabeel.

The Neds Blue Diamond Stakes for 2-year-olds has a tough-to-figure field of 16 with quite a few, including the winner, General Beau, exiting the Blue Diamond Prelude on Feb. 6. Ingratiating, a Godolphin homebred, comes off a win in the Talindert Stakes at Flemington on Feb. 13.

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The Neds Oakleigh Plate looks like a right tossup with 18 entered to try 1,100 meters. For what it's worth, Prophet's Thumb, a 5-year-old I Am Invincible mare, defeated several of these in the Schweppes Rubiton Stakes on Feb. 6.

Qatar

The Emir's Trophy, a local Group 1 race, had been building to a nice international attraction -- until the Saudi Cup came along. Last year, the Riyadh race stole the thunder of the competition in Doha. This year, the two are run on the same day, and it's quite a shame.

Still, the race is far from a washout.

Aspetor, formerly trained by Roger Charleton, has competed in top-level events as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia -- admittedly without much impact.

The 6-year-old French-bred did win the Group 2 Sky Bet York Stakes last summer and the Group 1 Preis von Europa at Cologne in 2019.

Berkshire Rocco was second by a neck to Galileo Chrome in last year's Group 1 St Leger Stakes at Doncaser.

Pedro Cara was last seen finishing sixth in the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga -- a race won by Channel Maker, the favorite for the $1.5 million Neom Turf Cup on Saturday in Saudi Arabia.

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He won the 2019 Qatar Derby, defeating Bangkok, and finished third in the 2019 Emir's Trophy. Standard Deviation returns after finishing second in last year's Emir's Trophy, won by French King. And Hellenistique makes his first start since winning the 2020 Qatar Derby.

England / France

England's All-Weather Championship stages the second of three French Fast-Track Qualifiers Saturday at Casnes-sur-Mer. The winner of the Prix Saonois gets a guaranteed spot in the Bombardier All-Weather Mile Championship at Lingfield Park on Finals Day, April 2.

The standout is Kenway, a Daliway colt who knocked heads with some of Europe's best last year, contesting the French 2,000 Guineas and the Group 1 Prix Jean Prat with distinction, albeit without hitting the frame in either. Switched to the all-weather, he won twice at Deauville to end his campaign.

Pauline Chehboub, racing manager for owner Haras de la Gousserie, said the All-Weather Finals "could be an objective for him."

Thursday night, Shimmering Dawn rallied outside rivals to win the chelmsfordcityracecourse.com Fillies' Conditions Stakes, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Ladbrokes All-Weather Fillies & Mares Championship over the same distance of seven furlongs on Finals Day.

The heavy favorite, Shimmering Dawn settled in last of the six runners under Tom Eaves, came widest through the straight and went on to win by 3/4 length over Amber Island with Quickstep Lady third. She now is 5-for-12 on all-weather tracks.

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Trainer James Tate said Shimmering Dawn might try the Lady Wulfruna Stakes on March 13 at Wolverhampton before heading to Finals Day.

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