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Japanese win big on Saudi Cup program; Confidence Game enters Kentucky Derby picture

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Panthalassa wins the $20 million Saudi Cup for Japan. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy of Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia
Panthalassa wins the $20 million Saudi Cup for Japan. Photo by Erika Rasmussen, courtesy of Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia

Feb. 27 (UPI)-- Japanese horses won three races, including the $20 million Saudi Cup, Saturday at King Abdulaziz Racecourse as trainer Bob Baffert settled for his third straight second-place finish in the world's richest race.

The Japanese blitz followed a similar strong showing at the $35.35 million race meeting in 2022 and portends a strong presence worldwide throughout the season.

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The weekend also saw an important stop on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby", a dramatic showdown between Hong Kong's top horses and a flurry of Grade 1 events in Australia.

Horses started on the Arabian Peninsula and that's where we'll get this started, too.

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Saudi Arabia

The fourth Saudi Cup meeting at King Abdulaziz Racecourse confirmed the status of the event as a premier stop on the world racing circuit and teed up some juicy matchups for the rest of the year. The $20 million Cup itself was front and center.

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There wasn't much to the world's richest race as Panthalassa shot right to the front from the inside gate and, making just his second start on dirt, never relinquished the lead.

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At one point, Japanese runners occupied the first five positions and it was only a valiant late bid by the Baffert-trained Country Grammer to finish second that prevented a Japanese sweep of the top four slots.

Panthalassa's previous high point was a dead-heat victory in the Group 1 Dubai Turf in 2022, shared with Lord North, who coincidentally won the Group 3 Winter Derby in England just hours after the Saudi Cup.

He was well-beaten in his only previous start on dirt in a minor stakes in Japan but trainer Yoshito Yahagi said he was confident nonetheless and the victory opens new opportunity for the 6-year-old by Lord Kanaloa.

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"I think I was correct that my feeling was right that he could handle the dirt," said Yahagi, known as "the man in the hat."

"You know this is not easy. Japanese racing tries everything to improve and develop. Japanese horse racing has become more international. Of course, this is the best feeling as the prize-money is the best!

"I will discuss with my owner after the conference and then we will decide if we go to Dubai for the World Cup, which is of course a possibility," Yahagi said. "If my owners let me go to Europe, I would love the challenge."

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Country Grammer also finished second in the Cup in 2022. The Baffert-trained Charlatan was second to Mishriff in 2021.

On the rest of the program:

Mostahdaf hit another gear as he turned for home in the $1.5 million Grade III Neom Turf Cup and scooted away to a 7-lengths victory. Dubai Future was second for Godolphin, followed by Flying Visit and the favorite, Missed the Cut.

"Absolutely according to plan," winning rider Jim Crowley said. "He took me into the race in the stretch."

The 5-year-old son of Frankel was making his first start since finishing 20th in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe over very soft turf last autumn. The going at King Abdulaziz racecourse was good to firm and he obviously preferred that.

Trainer John Gosden said Mostahdaf, who is 3-for-3 on all-weather courses, "is an improving horse. There's no reason he couldn't run in Dubai on the big night in the World Cup."

Bathrat Leon, another handled by trainer Yoshito Yahagi and one of four Japanese horses in the race, made all the going in the $1.5 million Grade III 1351 Turf Sprint and just did hold off American challenger Casa Creed, who just missed winning this race for the second straight year.

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Raaed was third and the favorite, last year's winner Songline, was a disappointment, beating only one horse after missing the break.

Bathrat Leon, a 5-year-old by Kizuna, won the Group 2 Godolphin Mile last year on Dubai World Cup night but was winless in four intervening starts in England, France and Japan.

"We will go to Dubai again," Yahagi said. "Of course we have plans to go back to the U.K."

Japan struck again in the $2.5 million Red Sea Turf Handicap at 1 furlong short of 2 miles as Silver Sonic spurted to the lead early in the stretch run and left the rest behind, winning by 2 1/2 lengths.

The 7-year-old son of Orfevre, last seen winning at 2 1/4 miles back home, had no problem with the cutback in distance and trainer Yasutoshi Ikee said he was proud to showcase him to the world.

"We're very pleased to bring him to a different country," Ikee said.

Local runner Commissioner King hooked up with one of Baffert's top 3-year-olds, Havnameltdown, in the stretch run of the $1.5 million Group 3 Saudi Derby and was just up to win with a final spurt of energy, nailing his American rival by a head. Japan's Derma Sotogake was third and Uruguayan Es-Unico finished fourth.

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Commissioner King, a Kentucky-bred colt by Commissioner, has been lightly but successfully raced in the Kingdom. Havnameltdown, winner of four out of five previous starts in California, is by Uncaptured. Baffert said he will return home with potentially two lesser experienced stablemates headed to Dubai for the Group 2 UAE Derby.

Abdulaziz Alyousef, representing the owners of Commissioner King, said, "That was history. You will never see a better duel between two amazing horses like it. That will be watched over and over for a very long time."

Elite Power saved the day for American racing interests with a dominant performance in the $1.5 million Group 3 Riyadh Dirt Sprint. The Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award winner took complete charge in the stretch and ran on to win by 3 1/4 lengths over fellow U.S. traveler Gunite. Remake was third for Japan.

The victory was popular with the local fans as Elite Power, a 5-year-old son of Curlin, was bred by his owner, Juddmonte, owned and operated by decades by the late Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah. Bill Mott trains the horse, who now has six wins from nine starts.

Hong Kong

Golden Sixty all but sewed up his third straight Hong Kong Horse of the Year honor with a perfectly timed, stretch running victory over his chief rival, Romantic Warrior, in Sunday's Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup.

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The two have met twice and Golden Sixty has won both races, the first the Group 1 Stewards' Cup in January at his preferred distance of 1,600 meters and Sunday's race at Romantic Warrior's sweet spot of 2,000 meters.

Even winning rider Vincent Ho seemed impressed his 7-year-old mount could still find the energy to get the better of his 5-year-old foe.

"To be honest, I expected the other horse would have beaten us," said Ho, who has professed he considers Golden Sixty best at the mile.

Trainer Francis Lui now has to decide whether to start Golden Sixty in the Group 2 Chairman's Trophy at 1,600 meters April 9.

Then the choices multiply: The 1,600-meter Champions Mile or the 2,000-meters QE II Cup on Champions Day on April 30 and/or the Group 1 Yasuda Kinen at 1,600 meters at Tokyo Racecourse on June 4.

"It's a difficult consideration," Liu admitted. "I think [it will be Japan] if I plan to run overseas. I have to discuss it with Vincent. But of course he still thinks he's a miler."

Ho also booted home Super Sunny Sing the winner of the day's co-featured Hong Kong Classic Cup, the second leg of the Hong Kong Derby series, but said he thinks another winner on the program, Beauty Eternal might be the horse to beat in the big race.

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The Derby is a key target for local owners and this year's contenders have yet to sort themselves out with the winner of the first leg of the series, reporting fourth in the Classic Cup.

Australia

Anamoe, the odds-on favorite, quickened to the lead with some 200 meters to go in Saturday's Group 1 TAB Chipping Norton Stakes at Royal Randwick and ran on for jockey James McDonald to win by 3/4 length over Fangirl. Mo'unga was third.

Anamoe, a 4-year-old Godolphin homebred colt by Street Boss, ran 1 mile in 1:34.99, picking up his sixth win from his last 11 starts.

Sunshine In Paris captured Saturday's Group 1 Drinkwise Surround Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a nose over Ruthless Dame with another Godolphin runner, In Secret, just another nose back as the hot favorite. In Secret and Sunshine In Paris finished 1-2 in their previous meeting.

At Sandown, Alligator Blood won the Group 1 Lamaro's Hotel Futurity Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Mr Brightside with I'm Thunderstruck relegated to third; Uncommon James upset favorite Lofty Strike by 3/4 length in the Group 1 Ladbrokes Oakleigh Plate; and Little Brose got home first by 1 length over Don Corleone in the Group 1 Ladbrokes Blue Diamond Stakes for 2-year-olds.

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England

While Panthalassa was winning the $20 million Saudi Cup, the horse he dead-heated for victory in last year's Dubai Turf, Lord North, also was victorious in Saturday's Group 3 Winter Derby on the Lingfield Park all-weather course.

Lord North, a 7-year-old Dubawi gelding, finished second in the Winter Derby last year in preparation for Dubai. This year's effort came in his first start since last July when he was fourth in the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, beaten just 1 length.

"He is better on galloping tracks, coming off a strong pace, but his class shone through," winning rider Robert Havlin said.

"He has been showing us a bit of that at home. It was as if he was back to being a four- or five-year-old. Hopefully he can get back on song and win the Dubai Turf outright this year."

He might not have to face Panthalassa again as the latter may be rerouted to the Dubai World Cup on the Meydan dirt. But the Dubai Turf annually is one of the toughest races on the World Cup card no matter what.

Meanwhile, back in the States

The Road to the Roses

Saturday's $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park was a messy race over a sloppy track with Confidence Game getting the benefit of all to win by 1 length, leading home a trio of long shots.

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The favorite, Verifying, had a nightmare trip from the inside gate, catching muddy splashback and finding nowhere to go when trapped behind horses in the stretch. He finished fourth. The second-favorite, Giant Mischief, had a better shot but did not fire in the stretch and reported sixth.

Confidence Game, a Candy Ride colt trained by Keith Desormeaux, finished the 1 1/16 miles in the slop in 1:44.21 with James Graham up. It was his third win from seven starts and followed a third-place finish in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, where he was beaten 7 3/4 lengths on a fast track.

Reporting Sunday morning that Confidence Game returned in good shape, Desormeaux said circumstances helped him in the Rebel.

"Everything worked in his favor," Desormeaux said. "I've watched races there for two days, and that pace was about two seconds faster than anything I had seen. So, it set up great for him.

"I don't know how many people buy into this, but as far as the pedigree was concerned, as far as propensity for the off track, he had the highest number. The off track probably helped us. Perfect trip. Here we are."

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He said all of the final Kentucky Derby prep races remain possibilities for Confidence Game with the Arkansas Derby "our first option."

Brad Cox, who trains both Verifying and Giant Mischief, said the race was a total disappointment from his perspective.

"I was hoping to learn a good bit from yesterday's race," Cox said Sunday morning. "I'm not sure I learned as much as I was looking or hoping to. That would be the best way to sum that up.

"That's the honest to God way I looked at the race. I really thought I was going to find out something yesterday and I don't know what I found out."

One thing we found out is that Confidence Game earned 50 "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points and vaulted to the top of that leaderboard. Runner-up Red Route One moved to the No. 4 spot.

All that will change next weekend with three 50-point races on the agenda: The $400,000 Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita, the $300,000 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct and the $400,000 Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.

The Fountain of Youth is expected to mark the 3-year-old debut of Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award champion Forte.

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Next Friday also sees the resumption of the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" with the Dundalk Racecourse all-weather track hosting the 1-mile Patton Stakes.

Sunday's Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico was canceled along with most of the rest of the program due to wind gusting up to 70 mph. The Derby and three other stakes races will be appended to Tuesday's nine-race schedule.

The Path to the Oaks

Wet Paint started next-last of 12 in Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park, found new life a furlong from the finish and got through between rivals to win by 3 lengths, going away. The early leader, Condensation, held on for second at long odds and Grand Love was third.

Wet Paint, a Godolphin homebred filly by Blame, ran 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track in 1:45.35 with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Brad Cox.

After a failed experiment on the turf in her debut, Wet Paint now has three wins from her last four starts. In her most recent, she landed the MarthaWashington, also run on a wet Oaklawn track, by 2 lengths. She stands No. 1 on the "Road to the Kentucky Oaks" leaderboard with 73 points.

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Classic / Dirt Mile

Repo Rocks tracked the pace under a tight hold in Saturday's $125,000 Styme Stakes at Aqueduct, took the lead at upper stretch when released from restraint and quickly took off to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Miles D was second, 1/2 length in front of Far Mo Power.

Repo Rocks, a 5-year-old Tapiture gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.75, tallying his fourth straight win including the Toboggan Stakes (G3) Jan. 28.

Sprint

While trainer Bill Mott was still savoring a productive day in Saudi Arabia, he got another boost as Candy Man Rocket rallied from a stalking trip to land Saturday's $125,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint by 2 lengths over Uncle Ernie.

Lighting Larry was third as Candy Man Rocket, a 5-year-old son of Candy Ride, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.91. After a brief stint on 2021 Triple Crown trail, Candy Man Rocket made only one start in 2022. He returned with a win in January to prepare for Saturday's heat.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Yuugiri pressed the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Carousel at Oaklawn Park, moved to the lead outside pacesetter Pretty Birdie and got away to a 3 1/2-lengths victory over that rival. Yuugiri, a 4-year-old Shackleford filly, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:10.17 with Ricardo Santana Jr. up. She now has four wins from eight starts.

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Around the ovals

Turfway Park

Grand Ave Girl went straight to the lead in Saturday's $125,000 Wintergreen Stakes for fillies and mares and wasn't threatened at any point in the 1-mile race, winning by 1 3/4 lengths from Kate's Kingdom. The favorite, Opening Buzz, checked in sixth.

Grand Ave Girl, a 5-year-old Runhappy mare, happily ran 1 mile on the all-weather surface in 1:37.12 with Luan Machado riding confidently.

Aqueduct

Neural Network was promoted to victory after finishing second in Saturday's $100,000 Gander Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-olds when the stewards ruled the first-finisher, Maker's Candy impeded him in the stretch run.

Neural Network is a Cloud Computing colt trained by Chad Brown. The 1 mile over a fast track went in 1:38.64.

Fair Grounds

Allnight Moonlight led all the way to a 4-lengths victory in Saturday's $75,000 Louisiana Stallion of the year Half Ours Stakes for state-bred 3-year-olds with the rest of the field well strung out.

Allnight Moonlight, a Ransom the Moon colt, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.94 with Jareth Loveberry at the controls.

Free Drop Maddy, the favorite, cleared seven rivals early in Saturday's $75,000 Louisiana Broodmare of the Year Buttercup's Song Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies and rolled home an easy 2 1/4-lengths winner over Olivia G.

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Free Drop Maddy, a Free Drop Billy filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.47 with Reylu Gutierrez in the irons.

Turf Paradise

Ramblin' Man got a nose in front of pacesetting Annie's Boy as the pair flashed under the wire in Saturday's $50,000 Cactus Wren Stakes for Arizona-bred colts and geldings. Ramblin' Man, the favorite, finished 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.58 with Daniel Vergara in the irons. The winner is an 8-year-old gelding by Uh Oh Bango.

Outside the Law opened a big lead in the companion $50,000 Cactus Flower Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares and held on to win by 2 1/2 lengths from Alberta Sun.

Outside the Law, a 6-year-old Macho Uno mare, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in the identical time of 1:14.58 under Harry Hernandez.

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