Japan Can Shine in Saudi Cup, Saudi Derby

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

Saturday is a big day of racing at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. A bevy of competitive group stakes are on the agenda, and they've attracted competitive international fields.

We'll focus our attention on two of the most interesting events: the Saudi Cup (G1) and the Saudi Derby (G3).

Saudi Cup (G1)

The $20 million Saudi Cup has drawn a stellar field for its fifth edition. Grade 1 winners from around the globe will face off over 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) in a battle for the richest horse race in the world.

The expected favorite is #14 White Abarrio, winner of the 2022 Florida Derby (G1) and a participant in that year's Kentucky Derby (G1). He's always shown talent, but elevated his game to a new level during the second half of 2023. Under the care of trainer Rick Dutrow, White Abarrio trounced a strong field by 6 1/4 lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney (G1), counting future Horse of the Year Cody's Wish among his beaten rivals. Then he tackled the 1 1/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) and employed pace-tracking tactics to prevail by one length.

But Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up #4 Derma Sotogake is back for a rematch and may be capable of turning the tables. The talented Japanese-bred colt rose to prominence in the 2023 UAE Derby (G2), winning by 5 1/2 lengths in a fast time suggesting he could have beaten older horses in the Dubai World Cup (G1) on the same afternoon.

Derma Sotogake didn't get the best trip when finishing sixth in the 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1), and he entered the Breeders' Cup Classic off a six-month layoff due to missing a scheduled prep race. But despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, he stalked the pace from fourth place and gained two lengths on White Abarrio through the final furlong to finish second.

Derma Sotogake already has experience at Riyadh, finishing third in the 2023 Saudi Derby, and I believe he'll receive a favorable pace setup in his return to Saudi Arabia. White Abarrio isn't the only speed horse in the field; gate-to-wire Preakness (G1) winner #9 National Treasure is a serious pace player who survived a duel to win the Pegasus World Cup (G1) last month, and last year's Pennsylvania Derby (G1) hero #11 Saudi Crown is a pure speedster who kicked off 2024 with a gate-to-wire win in the Louisiana (G3).

American horses haven't had the best luck so far in the Saudi Cup, with multiple Grade 1 winners like Knicks Go, Charlatan, Taiba, Country Grammer, Mandaloun, and Art Collector falling to defeat over the unfamiliar sand/clay/ wood chip surface at Riyadh. If White Abarrio, National Treasure, and Saudi Crown head out too fast in the early going, I believe they'll hand a perfect setup to Derma Sotogake, who can follow in the footsteps of Panthalassa (2023) to become the second Japan-based winner of the Saudi Cup.

Saudi Derby (G3)

Derma Sotogake isn't the only Japanese horse I expect to see in the Riyadh winner's circle this Saturday. Japanese raiders have won two of the first four editions of the 1,600-meter (about one-mile) Saudi Derby, and #6 Forever Young looks ready to make that three out of five.

Forever Young is undefeated in three starts for trainer Yoshito Yahagi, who conditioned Panthalassa to win last year's Saudi Cup. Most recently, Forever Young smashed the 1,600-meter Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki Racecourse in Japan by seven lengths.

The Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun is a Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier and Japan's most important race for two-year-old dirt horses; in 2022 the race was won in narrow fashion by Derma Sotogake.

You can argue Forever Young is further along at this point than Derma Sotogake was last year, so the future looks brought for this talented Triple Crown nominee. I'm expecting a big effort from Forever Young in his sophomore debut, with even better to come down the road.

Some bettors might opt to support #5 Book'em Danno, one of two American challengers in the Saudi Derby field. Certainly Book'em Danno was eye-catching when trouncing Iroquois (G3) winner West Saratoga by 12 1/2 lengths in the seven-furlong Pasco S. at Tampa Bay Downs last month. But Book'em Danno is 4-for-4 sprinting and 0-for-1 running long, suffering his lone defeat when second in the one-mile Nashua S. at Aqueduct. I wonder if the Saudi Cup distance will prove a furlong too far for Book'em Danno, leaving a runner-up finish more likely.

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


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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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