Why I’m Picking Charlatan in the Saudi Cup

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

It's safe to say winter weather has wreaked havoc on racing across the U.S. over the last 10 days or so. Countless cards have been called off, and the Southwest (G3)—originally scheduled for Feb. 15, then Feb. 20, then Feb. 21—has now been pushed off to Feb. 27.

But at least the stateside weather won't have an impact on Saturday's $20 million Saudi Cup at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. The second running of the world's richest horse race has drawn 14 entries, including a formidable American contingent. U.S.-based runners ran 1-2-4-5 in the inaugural Saudi Cup, and a similarly dominant showing could be on the horizon this Saturday.

On paper, the 1 1/8-mile event looks like a match race between the U.S. raiders #3 Charlatan and #8 Knicks Go, two brilliant Grade 1 winners in hot form for high-percentage connections. Charlatan has crossed the wire first in all four of his starts for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, while Knicks Go has gone 4-for-4 since moving to the barn of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox.

Knicks Go is the "now" horse after posting front-running victories in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and Pegasus World Cup (G1). His weapon is his sheer speed—in the Dirt Mile, he carved out blazing splits of :21.98, :44.40, and 1:08.25 before forging on to win in the track-record time of 1:33.85. He was similarly impressive in the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus, dashing to the lead through fractions of :22.90, :46.16, and 1:09.91 before cruising to the wire in a snappy 1:47.89.

But Knicks Go is wheeling back on just four weeks of rest, and he's squaring off against an equally brilliant rival. Charlatan might not be as accomplished as Knicks Go, having been disqualified from a six-length romp in a division of the 2020 Arkansas Derby (G1) after testing positive for lidocaine. But Charlatan was nothing less than sensational in the Dec. 26 Malibu (G1) sprinting seven furlongs at Santa Anita.

Showing no signs of rust off an injury-induced layoff, Charlatan confidently tracked blazing fractions of :21.81 and :43.95 set by Keeneland track record holder Nashville, then pounced to the front with a sudden burst of speed. In the blink of an eye he was clear by daylight, and down the lane Charlatan widened easily to score by 4 1/2 lengths over next-out San Pasqual (G2) winner Express Trainer. Proven Grade 1 winner Collusion Illusion and subsequent Pegasus World Cup third-place runner Independence Hall finished third and fifth, respectively.

Charlatan has trained strongly in preparation for the Saudi Cup, suggesting another big effort is in the offing. Racing 1 1/8 miles around one turn should suit him just fine. And best of all, he's drawn post position nine, outside of Knicks Go in post five. This should allow Charlatan to secure a perfect trip stalking Knicks Go, and if the Pegasus winner falters even slightly, Charlatan can capitalize in an instant. As a result, he's my selection to win.

For the exotics, there's bound to be some support for #11 Mishriff, a John Gosden trainee shipping in from Europe for his first run since October. Victorious in the 10 1/2-furlong Prix du Jockey Club (G1) over the Chantilly turf course last summer, Mishriff is going to be a popular play for two reasons—one, he's classy, and two, he ran well over the Riyadh dirt when finishing second in the 2020 Saudi Derby.

But the Saudi Derby didn't attract the deepest field, and I suspect Mishriff's runner-up effort was a testament to his talent more than any real affinity for dirt. Had Mishriff handled the footing at Riyahd as well as he handles turf, I believe he would have won for fun, because all subsequent form suggests Mishriff was by far the best horse in the Saudi Derby field.

In short, I'm tempted to oppose Mishriff for the exotics. It's interesting to note that Frankie Dettori (who guided Mishriff in his last two starts) has jumped ship to ride the other Gosden trainee #6 Global Giant, runner-up by a neck in the 1 1/4-mile Bahrain International Trophy when last seen. The improving six-year-old hasn't missed the exacta in three starts over synthetic tracks and might handle the switch to dirt better than Mishriff, opening the door for a top-four finish at large odds.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Saudi Cup?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the seventh straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

Recent Posts

More Blogs