3 Stakes Plays to Wrap Up February

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 Mishriff.

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 the making.

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 lead.

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 offing.

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.

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