By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Ready for a trip around the
globe and back? The final Saturday in February is a busy one, with the Saudi
Cup (G1) highlighting a rich international slate in Saudi Arabia and the Rebel
S. (G2) ranking as the biggest prize on the home front.
Let's plan our picks for a
trio of the Saturday stakes:
Saudi Cup (G1) at Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)
With a purse of $20 million,
the 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup is the richest Thoroughbred horse race in the world. It's
no wonder why the 2022 edition has drawn a strong field of top-class horses
from around the globe.
The possible favorite is
defending Saudi Cup winner Mishriff,
a versatile five-year-old capable of competing with equal aplomb on dirt and
turf. His globetrotting 2021 campaign was stellar—after winning the Saudi Cup
by one length, Mishriff traveled to Dubai and nabbed the 1 1/2-mile Dubai
Sheema Classic (G1) on turf. Later in the season, he added the 1 5/16-mile
Juddmonte International (G1) at York in England to his tally.
But it's worth noting Mishriff's
2021 Saudi Cup win came with some assistance from his key rivals. Future U.S.
Horse of the Year Knicks Go failed to bring his A-game and ran fourth by a wide
margin. And while Malibu S. (G1) winner Charlatan ran well enough to finish
second, he was arguably tripped up by the 1 1/8-mile distance.
The 2022 Saudi Cup may prove
to be a tougher race. The U.S. contingent is led by Mandaloun, who appears primed for a big performance. An elite
three-year-old who won the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Haskell S. (G1) via
disqualification, Mandaloun kicked off his 2022 season with a gritty victory in
the 1 1/16-mile Louisiana S. (G3) at Fair Grounds.
In my opinion, Mandaloun's
Louisiana effort was stronger than it appears at first glance. After settling
behind uncontested leader Midnight Bourbon through slow fractions of :24.39,
:48.25, and 1:12.23, Mandaloun finished fast (fourth quarter in about :23.90,
final sixteenth in :06.31) to get up and beat Midnight Bourbon by
three-quarters of a length.
Now, Midnight Bourbon is no slouch—he
finished second in the Preakness S. (G1) and Travers S. (G1) last year, and in
the Louisiana, he pulled 8 1/4 lengths clear of the third-place runner. Given
the slow early/fast late race shape, it's impressive that Mandaloun managed to
reel in Midnight Bourbon and win the Louisiana in a quick time.
I believe this was a perfect
four-year-old debut for Mandaloun, and it should set him up well for a peak
performance in the Saudi Cup. I'm excited to see him square off against
Honeybee S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park
Just how talented is #3 Secret Oath? To be honest, I'm
wondering if the daughter of Arrogate might be a Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner in
Secret Oath failed to fire
her best shot in the Golden Rod S. (G2) at Churchill Downs last fall, finishing
fifth by a wide margin. But she's stepped forward dramatically at Oaklawn this
winter, smashing a one-mile allowance by 8 1/4 lengths before cruising to an
easy 7 1/4-length score in the Martha Washington S.
Secret Oath is a stretch runner
without much tactical speed, but her ability to pounce around the far turn and
sustain her finish down the homestretch is impressive. She's bred top and
bottom to improve with maturity, so I don't think we've seen her best yet. The
way Secret Oath is progressing, I expect her to turn the tables on Golden Rod
runner-up #2 Yuugiri (5-2) and post
another flashy victory in the Honeybee.
Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn Park
#2 Newgrange (9-5)
had to work to win the Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park last month, but I
believe the undefeated colt will have an easier time of things in the Rebel.
For starters, Newgrange
endured a wide trip from post 10 in the Southwest, only to kick on gamely down
the homestretch and forge clear by 1 1/2 lengths. In the Rebel, Newgrange will
break from post two under ultra-hot jockey John Velazquez, and from there, I
wouldn't be surprised to see Newgrange dash to the front and save ground on the
For another, Newgrange
enters the Rebel off a bullet five-furlong workout in :58 3/5 at Santa Anita, a
sign that he's still in strong form (and maybe even sharpening his early
speed). In terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, Newgrange is the fastest
horse in the Rebel field, so another short-priced victory should be in the
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the graded stakes this weekend?
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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.