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
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?
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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.