Back to the Future - By Evan Hammonds

Aside from the few thousand that traveled to Saudi Arabia last week for the inaugural Saudi Cup races, the racing world watched the activities on TVG and Fox Sports 1 with great interest. After all, Thoroughbred races worth $20 million don’t come around very often.

From our vantage point—in front of the television—it looked like a grand spectacle at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in the desert. Despite nearly a quarter-of-a-century difference, the parallels between the Saudi Cup and the first Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba in 1996 are striking.

The post time for the Saudi Cup was delayed several minutes, which is to be expected with the pomp and ceremony tied to the inaugural running. The world watched the main event, and the replay, and got some commentary from winning rider Luis Saez, but as third-place finisher Benbatl’s rider, Oisin Murphy, was being interviewed, the witching hour of 1 p.m. struck Eastern Standard time, and FS1 immediately cut to its next scheduled program.

Technology and the number of outlets available for broadcast have exploded over the last 25 years, but it was reminiscent of our view of the Dubai World Cup. Huddled in the breakroom of the Daily Racing Form office in Phoenix, we watched the first World Cup via satellite hookup. There was no cable transmission or English commentary. We listened to the track feed—in Arabic—as Cigar held off the charge of Soul of the Matter by a half-length. The coverage was over soon after they had crossed the wire.

American-based horses ran one-two-four in the Saudi Cup as stellar mare Midnight Bisou rallied strongly for second and stretch leader Mucho Gusto, winner of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1), held on for fourth. At Nad Al Sheba back on March 27, 1996, American-based horses filled the trifecta as Virginia Kraft Payson’s L’Carriere was third behind Burt Bacharach’s homebred Soul of the Matter.

Despite the underlying commentary by some about the breed, specifically those bred and sold on our continent, U.S.-bred horses remain the gold standard…on dirt at least.

Another interesting parallel between the two is ownership. The Maryland-bred Cigar raced for breeder Allen Paulson. Following Cigar’s retirement, and a gala send off at the National Horse Show in New York, Paulson sold 75% of the horse to Michael Tabor (in a deal worth a reported $25 million), and Cigar went to Ashford Stud in Central Kentucky.

Ashford Stud is the Kentucky satellite of Coolmore, a global operation that remains as sharp as they come. Witness, it is currently the home of 2015 Triple Crown winner and 2019 leading freshman sire American Pharoah and 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify.

On Jan. 1, reported that Maximum Security’s breeder/owners Gary and Mary West had sold a 50% stake in the colt to Coolmore. The son of New Year’s Day won the Saudi Cup in Tabor’s silks.

That Cigar proved infertile—a substantial insurance payment was made—and later lived out his life at the Kentucky Horse Park, is beside the point. Coolmore has remained aggressive gathering the top racing prospects to fill its stallion barn.

As far as stallions go, both the Saudi Cup and Dubai World Cup certainly have had significant impacts on the sires lists. Cigar’s sire, Palace Music, was the leading sire of 1995 based on Cigar’s exploits, and Cigar’s Dubai World cup earnings of $2.4 million carried Palace Music a long way in 1996 before falling to Cozzene. New Year’s Day, despite having moved to Shadai Stallion Station in Japan, is North America’s leading sire with $10,266,374…a more than $5 million lead on Midnight Lute (Midnight Bisou added $3.5 million with her runner-up effort).

Even with those links back to 1996, the Saudi Cup is also a look forward. Horses competing on the Saudi Cup program were subject to testing for “prohibited substances” in accordance with the requirements set out in Article 6 of the International Agreement of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities and were to be tested for the presence of “prohibited substances” through the routine collection of both pre- and post-race blood and urine samples.

Among the prohibited substances was furosemide (Salix or Lasix), which was also the case for the Pegasus World Cup horses. It will also be the case this spring at Keeneland and Churchill Downs in 2-year-old races.

The winds of change might not be as blustery as some would prefer, but they are blowing nonetheless.

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