A dramatic finish to the world's richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, was the high point of an international horse racing weekend that also saw history in the making as far afield as Japan and Hong Kong, where 13 was a lucky number.
Even the Kentucky Derby doings were overseas on the second-to-last weekend of the shortest month with just 10 weeks left until Louisville's biggest day.
Laurel Park finally got out from under the brutal winter weather sufficiently to run a pair of rich graded stakes figures and the longshot payouts were eye-popping. And there was even more graded stakes action at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park.
There is only one place to start:
The European observers of Saturday's $20 million Saudi Cup always saw the chance that the American favorites, Charlatan and Knicks Go, would hook up in a speed duel, burn each other out and open the way for someone -- likely Mishriff -- to snatch the W. That analysis arrived at the right outcome, even though the premise proved slightly faulty.
Charlatan and Knicks Go battled it out on the front end in the 1 1/8-miles event. And, in fact, Knicks Go could go no farther as he labored down the King Abdulaziz Racecourse stretch, eventually finishing fourth, beaten more than 8 lengths.
The soothsayers were wrong though, in their assessment of Charlatan. He never gave up, and it took every bit of effort from Mishriff (and, as it turned out, an extra stroke or two from jockey David Egan's whip) to pull off the victory. Charlatan might not want to go much farther than those 9 furlongs, at least at this point in his career. But he certainly did not throw in the towel, leaving some other top-shelf talent well in his wake.
Full credit, though, to Mishriff, the 4-year-old son of Make Believe, bred and owned by Saudi Prince Faisal and trained by John Gosden. The colt, winner of last year's Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club or French Derby, is a long-term product of the prince's breeding operation and has an unlimited future.
Gosden wouldn't commit to any plan for the colt and indicated he will return to England. The next logical target would be the $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 27, also on the dirt. But with his form also well confirmed on the turf, his connections might want to save Mishriff for the big races in the United Kingdom and Europe, perhaps aiming even for the 1 1/2 miles of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris in the fall.
Trainer Bob Baffert also has plenty of options for Charlatan, some of which might toughen him up for the 1 1/4 miles of the Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar in the fall.
The other Americans in the Saudi Cup performed with relative distinction, too. Sleepy Eyes Todd, who was squeezed by Charlatan at the start, costing jockey Mike Smith a two-day suspension, finished fifth. Tacitus was seventh.
A sidenote: For the second year in a row, overuse of the whip cost a Saudi Cup jockey a big fine. This year, it was Egan, hit for some $100,000 for exceeding the 10-stroke limit while urging Mishriff past Charlatan. Last year, it was Smith, fined more than $200,000 on a similar charge.
The United States also was represented with a single horse in two undercard races Saturday in Riyadh and each of them also finished second. Cowan missed the break pretty badly in the Saudi Derby, came with a big late run but couldn't catch Japanese long shot Pink Kamehameha, who won by a diminishing 3/4 length. And Channel Maker, the reigning U.S. male turf champ, could not hold off True Self and jockey Hollie Doyle in the closing yards of the Neom Turf Cup, settling for second, 1 3/4 lengths back of that rival.
Otherwise, Godolphin runner Space Blues hoisted the blue flag as a premier international sprinter with a victory in the stc 1351 Turf Sprint; Godolphin struck again as longshot Gifts of Gold won the Red Sea Turf Handicap at 1 7/8 miles; and Japanese runners Copano Kicking and Matea Sky finished 1-2 in the Saudi Arabian Airlines Dirt Sprint.
Thirteen was the lucky number Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse in Hong Kong's New Territories. The undisputed local star attraction, Golden Sixty, notched his 13th straight win in the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup. And trainer John Size celebrated his 1,300th Hong Kong win as Waikuku took down the Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup.
Meanwhile, the third big race of the day did nothing to help sort out this year's muddled picture for next month's BMW Hong Kong Derby.
Golden Sixty just did keep his streak intact in the Gold Cup. Trailing early, as usual, the 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro gelding made his trademark late dash outside rivals down the stretch, blowing by reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year Exultant some 100 meters out. But then he had to contend with Furore, who wasn't about giving up. It was all jockey Vincent Ho could do to get Golden Sixty home a short head to the good.
"Once he went past Exultant he wanted to lay in," Ho said. "It made it difficult for me but it's still a victory. I was quite confident that I would stay ahead of them but we fought hard. It wasn't easy. It was a bit unexpected to be that close."
Golden Sixty now has 16 wins from 17 starts and is four shy of Silent Witness's record 17 consecutive wins. He also is only two wins back of Beauty Generation's single-season record of eight victories.
In the Silver Jubilee Cup, Waikuku also relied on a late-stretch run but jockey Joao Moreira found the late stages a bit easier and kicked away to a clear win, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Southern Legend. It was the first win for Waikuku since the Group 1 Stewards' Cup in January of 2020.
Size, who relocated to Hong Kong from Australia 20 years ago, humbly shrugged off the 1,300-win mark, saying, "It probably means I've been here a long time and I'm doing my job well."
The two Group 1 events demonstrated the importance of the BMW Hong Kong Derby for churning up future stars. Golden Sixty won the 2020 Derby, Furore and Waikuku finished first and second in 2019 and Exultant was third in the 2018 renewal.
This year's Derby picture remained muddled as Healthy Happy, Russian Emperor and Shadow Hero -- all at long odds -- finished as the top three in Sunday's Hong Kong Classic Cup, the second leg of the Derby series.
Healthy Happy's trainer, Frankie Lor, admitted he "wasn't sure he could win" and added jockey Alexis Badel managed to steal the race on the front end. Russian Emperor's trainer, Douglas Whyte, said the son of Galileo is rounding into Derby form and could be a threat.
Panfield, a Chilean-bred colt by Lookin at Lucky, could be a Derby threat after winning the Class 2 Ambitious Dragon Handicap at the Derby distance of 2,000 meters on Sunday's card. He is a Group 1 winner in his homeland of Chile.
Café Pharoah turned in the most professional effort of his young career Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse, winning the Grade 1 February Stakes and giving his sire, 2015 U.S. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, his first top-level win in Japan.
With Japan's leading rider, Christophe Lemaire, in the irons, Café Pharoah got away cleanly, raced just behind the leaders until the field hit mid-stretch in the 1,600-meters race over the dirt course, then got through and ran smoothly to win by 3/4 length over a fast-closing Air Spinel. Wonder Lider (JPN) was third.
Café Pharoah finished the 1,600 meters on a fast track in 1:33.4.
Café Pharoah won his first three starts, a run that come to an end when he reported seventh in the Japan Dirt Derby July 8. After a win in the Grade 3 Sirius Stakes, trainer Noriyuki Hori sent him to the Grade 1 Champions Cup on Dec. 6, where he finished sixth. Hori then added cheek pieces to the colt's gear for Sunday's start.
"His condition was super and I had confidence already at the paddock," Lemaire said. "We decided to use cheek pieces, hoping for a more aggressive performance. His start was good, we were positioned well and he responded beautifully."
American Pharoah has top-level winners in three countries with his second crop just now racing. Harvey's Lil Goil won the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland last Oct. 10 and, exactly two weeks later, Van Gogh won the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud in France.
The February Stakes was a "Win and You're In" event offering a spot in the starting gate for the Longines Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Del Mar but Hori did not provide any clue whether that race would be within Café Pharoah's scope or on his radar.
Noor Al Hawa, under Alberto Sanna, continued his undefeated season with a handy, stretch-running win in Saturday' $1 million H.H. The Amir Trophy in Doha. The 8-year-old tracked pacesetting Off He Goes, got by that one about 350 meters from the finish and was not further troubled. British rival Berkshire Rocco did his best for jockey Jason Watson but settled for second, 2 3/4 lengths back. Hellenistique finished third.
Noor Al Hawa, a French-bred gelding by Makfi, finished the 2,400 meters in 2:30.65. He finished fourth in the 2020 Trophy, eighth in 2019.
The Trophy is the Thoroughbred counterpart to the H.H. The Amir Sword for Purebred Arabians. Together, they are the crown jewels of Qatar's biggest day of the racing season. Although the Saudi Cup this year eclipsed the Sword Festival, the races nonetheless drew a fair sample of global talent. Another schedule shuffle could add to the luster.
Wally, a 4-year-old gelding by Siyouni, made up a huge amount of ground in the stretch run to win Saturday's Prix Saonois at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the French coast -- the second of three French races included in England's All-Weather Championship program. The victory ensured Wally a spot in the Bombardier All-Weather Mile Championship at Lingfield Park on Finals Day, Good Friday.
Wally was more than 10 lengths behind early leader Canagat at the top of the stretch, rallied outside the field and surged clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Kenway was second and Canagat held third.
Wally, trained by Jean-Claude Roget, has now won five of his last six starts, including both tries on all-weather surfaces.
Road to the Roses
There was no action on the U.S. Triple Crown front during the weekend, leaving Sunday's Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse as the sole focus of attention. In that, La Perouse jumped to the lead in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" with a late-running victory.
The win earned 30 points on the Churchill Downs leaderboard, vaulting the colt ahead of the winners of the first two races in the series, Alain Barows and Lemon Pop, neither of whom contested the Hyacinth. All three are, however, Triple Crown nominees.
La Perouse was away slowly in the Hyacinth and trailed most of the field around the sweeping turn into the stretch. Saving ground all the way, jockey Christophe Lemaire found daylight some 300 meters out and his mount responded willingly, hitting the front outside the 100-meters marker and winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Probatio, a 100-1 long shot, held on for second with Ladybug, one of three fillies in the race, finishing third.
La Perouse, trained by Kazuo Fujisawa for his owner-breeder Nobutaka Tada, is out of the Empire Maker mare Hat Shite Good. He won three of his last four starts as a 2-year-old.
Fujisawa did not tip whether the colt could be headed for the United States should he emerge on top in the series. The winner of an automatic Kentucky Derby invitation will be decided in the last of four legs, the Fukuryu Stakes on March 27 at Nakayama Racecourse. That event awards 40 points to the winner with 16, 8 and 4 points to the minor place-getters.
While there was no official "Road to the Roses" action in the United States, Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel Park can be seen as an early pointer to the Preakness Stakes, if not the Kentucky Derby. If that's the case in 2021, Maythehorsebwithu is the one to watch after the Pennsylvania-bred Bullsbay gelding led all the way to win by 4 lengths with Sheldon Russell riding for trainer Brittany Russell. Maythehorsebwithu ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.02.
Maythehorsebwithu, owned by Michael Dubb and Bethelehem Stables, was second last time out in the 7-furlongs Spectacular Bid Stakes.
"He's the kind of horse in the morning that always trains very forwardly," Brittany Russell said. "You can't get this horse tired and he always has big, huge gallop-outs after his breezes, so we were pretty confident that he would appreciate added distance. Seeing what happened in the Spectacular Bid in the stretch run, I was confident that if he got the right trip he could definitely get the mile."
Next weekend's program includes three races on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby."
The twice delayed Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park expects several of the top contenders for the Run for the Roses, including 2020 juvenile champion and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality. Saturday's historic Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park flesh out the agenda.
Both the Southwest and the Battaglia offer points on the 10-4-2-1 scale. The Fountain of Youth awards 50 points to the winner with 20, 10 and 5 for the minor placings.
Road to the Oaks
As the Miracle Wood could point to the Preakness, the Wide Country Stakes could presage the Black-Eyed Susan on Preakness weekend. Saturday's renewal of the Miracle Wood went to Street Lute, a Street Magician filly. She tracked the pace, led into the stretch and cruised home 1 length in front of Fraudulent Charge. With Xavier Perez aboard, Street Lute got 7 furlongs on the fast track in 1:23.59.
"Seven-eighths today, in great fashion," said assistant trainer Gina Robb. "I think it was even better than the day she won the Maryland Juvenile [Filly Championship going] seven-eighths. I think she kind of proved a point today."
Otherwise, in North America:
Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Runhappy Barbara Fritchie Stakes for fillies and mares ended in a parade of longshots, as Hibiscus Punch, at odds of nearly 42-1, emerged from a pace-stalking spot to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Estilo Talentoso and Club Car, both at double-digit odds, were second and third with Needs Supervision fourth at 35-1. The favorite, Hello Beautiful, pressed the pace, faded and finished fifth. You don't want to know what the $1 superfecta paid ($27,875.40).
Hibiscus Punch, a 6-year-old Into Mischief mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.16 for jockey Horacio Karamanos. Although she was taking a class jump, her long odds were a little out of whack as Hibiscus Punch came into the race with a record of 2-2-2 from seven previous starts. One of those seconds was in the Willa On the Move Stakes over the same course.
"I was cautiously optimistic," trainer Justin Nixon said Sunday. "Obviously, Hello Beautiful is an awful nice mare, and Dontletsweetfoolya, and they were both coming into the race strong and with strong resumes. We would have just been happy with a graded placing for the filly. To win it was just over the top."
Things were only a bit saner in the co-featured $250,000 Grade III General George. Although the favorite, Funny Guy, failed to fire and finished last, Share the Ride stalked the pace, burst through in the lane and won by 2 lengths as a 4-1 chance. Tattooed was second at 22-1 odds with Laki third and a winning superfecta ticket returned a paltry $2,088.10.
Share the Ride, a 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding, finished in 1:22.85 with jockey Victor Carrasco earning his first graded stakes win. It was his eighth straight in-the-money finish for trainer Miguel Penaloza.
"Everything came out like the plan we made. We're really happy," said owner Silvino Ramirez. "He's a fast horse. He likes to run in front. He was a little behind last time. He didn't like it so much, so this time we were in front. That's the way he likes it."
Bankit started on the outside of a field of eight in Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell Stakes, trailed most of field early and then had to take the wide route around the stretch turn. But when jockey Sheldon Russell lit the fuse, the 5-year-old Central Banker gelding responded quickly, getting away to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Galerio and Cordmaker completed the trifecta as Bankit finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.07. He had been competing with fellow New York-breds recently and won his first graded stakes.
Lucky Stride raced just back of the leaders in Saturday's $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares, came four-wide around the bend to assume the lead entering the stretch and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Landing Zone was second, 3 lengths to the good of Artful Splatter. Lucky Stride, a 5-year-old mare by Declaration of War, covered 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.38 under Julian Pimentel.
Trainer Michel Trombetta shipped Lucky Stride back to Laurel for the Nellie Morse after she won the Wayward Lass Stakes on Jan. 16 in a brief Florida sojourn.
Queen Nekia took the shortest route in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Royal Delta, saving ground and then rallying inside rivals to win by 1 3/4 lengths at odds of nearly 30-1. Eres Tu took a brief lead turning into the stretch and held second with Bajan Girl another 4 3/4 lengths back in third. Queen Nekia, a 6-year-old Harlington mare, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.62 with Corey Lanerie riding.
Queen Nekia, trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., got her first win since January of 2020 and her first-ever stakes win.
Charmaine's Mia pressed the pace in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Buena Vista Stakes for fillies and mares, was on the lead at the quarter pole and ran on to win by 1 length. Mucho Unusual was second, 3/4 length in front of Warren's Showtime. Charmaine's Mia, a 5-year-old mare by The Factor, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.93 with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Phil D'Amato.
Charmaine's Mia split her first 25 starts between Woodbine and Gulfstream Park. She won her first California heat, the Grade III Las Cienegas, Jan. 9 and now is 2-for-2 in her new digs.
"It's huge," D'Amato said. "Flavien said there's more in the tank. She rated nice. If she needed to go a little further, it wasn't a problem. So that definitely broadens her horizons and maybe has us starting to look at Grade I's."
Sunday, Bella Vita surged to a big lead in the stretch run of the $100,000 Spring Fever Stakes for California-bred fillies and mares and rolled home first by 4 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite. She's a Dime was second with Dr Wysong third. Bella Vita, a 4-year-old daughter of Bayern, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.33 for jockey Flavien Prat.
Make Mischief stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Maddie May Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-old fillies, squeezed through inside pacesetter Brattle House in deep stretch and defeated that rival by a neck. Vacay was 2 1/4 lengths farther back in third. Make Mischief, an Into Mischief filly, ran 1 mile on a muddy track in 1:40.55 with Eric Cancel aboard.