Facing off the pandemic, the organisers have attracted scores of the world’s top thoroughbreds, trainers and jockeys to the desert kingdom for a two-day racing festival at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse outside Riyadh.
The climax is Saturday’s $20 million (R291 million) Saudi Cup on dirt over 1800m, featuring an all-star cast flown in from the US, Britain, Dubai and Japan. A field of 14 was announced this week, with rising American stars Knicks Go and Charlatan grabbing the headlines.
A host of other races with fat purses make the programme a honeypot for racing luminaries from all over.
An international jockey challenge on the Friday features such big names as William Buick, Johnny Velasquez, Frankie Dettori, Hollie Doyle and Sibylle Vogt, the Swiss female rider who took the individual honours in 2020.
The Cup was run for the first time last year, missing the coronavirus world shut-down by a matter of days.
The aftermath of the meeting was beset with controversy, notably visiting jockeys getting hit with bans and fines for whip and weighing-in infractions by strict local stipendiary stewards.
American Mike Smith was not amused with his nine-day suspension and staggering $200,000 fine for exceeding the maximum allowed 10 crop strikes on Cup second-placed Midnight Bisou. But that hasn’t deterred the Hall of Famer from returning to Riyadh to partner Bob Baffert-trained Charlatan, the current favourite at 7-4.
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“I’ll just have to teach Mike to count,” quipped Baffert in a media conference this week.
Owners of 2020 winner Maximum Security have still not received the $10 million first prize, with payment frozen until legal proceedings against the horse’s former trainer Jason Servis are completed in the US. Servis is among several people charged with dope peddling – though there is no indication thus far that Maximum Security failed a drug test in Riyadh.
All that adverse publicity might have done for a razzmatazz horse race in another part of the world, but the power of oil money has seen the Saudi Cup bounce back even stronger.
The Saudi Cup is part of the kingdom’s drive to modernise and open itself up to foreign travel and sporting competition. The recent staging of the Dakar Rally was another example of this high-powered and expensive profiling campaign.
The pandemic will prevent spectators from attending the races this year and the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia has outlined extensive precautions to safeguard participants and a limited media contingent.
American horses dominated in 2020, finishing first, second, fourth and fifth – though well-backed McKinzie disappointed.
This year’s US quintet arrived in Riyadh last week and have all been galloping on the course’s dirt track in preparation.
Knicks Go, trained by Brad Cox, comes fresh off victory in the Pegasus World Cup, which was once the world’s richest race. Before that, the striking grey won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Charlatan was a promising three year old before being sidelined by injury. His comeback was a victory in the Grade 1 Malibu on December 26, but Baffert bypassed the Pegasus to bring his charge fresh to Saudi.
The other American horses are Max Player, Tacitus and Sleepy Eyes Todd.
Chuwa Wizard raids from Japan; Bangkok, Global Giant, Extra Elusive and French Derby champ Mishriff from England; Military Law from Dubai; and Simsir from Bahrain. Great Scot is the local hope.
South Africa’s TAB is offering betting on the meeting, which will be screened live on Telltrack, DStv channel 249, from 3pm on Saturday.
- 7-4 Charlatan
- 9-4 Knicks Go
- 6-1 Mishriff
- 12-1 Military Law, Tacitus
- 14-1 Chuwa Wizard
- 16-1 Max Player
- 20-1 and upwards others
The Saudi Cup field (horse, trainer, jockey):
- Alzahzaah – Scratched
- Bangkok (Ireland) (Andrew Balding) Ryan Moore
- Charlatan (US) (Bob Baffert) Mike Smith
- Chuwa Wizard (Japan) (Ryuji Okubo) Keita Tosaki
- Extra Elusive (Great Britain) (Roger Charlton) Hollie Doyle
- Global Giant (Great Britain) (John Gosden) Frankie Dettori
- Great Scot (Great Britain) (Abdullah Mushrif) Adel Alfouraidi
- Knicks Go (US) (Brad Cox) Joel Rosario
- Max Player (US) (Steve Asmussen) Umberto Rispoli
- Military Law (Great Britain) (Musabbeh Al Mheiri) Antonio Fresu
- Mishriff (Ireland) (John Gosden) David Egan
- Simsir (Ireland) (Fawzi Nass) Adrie de Vries
- Sleepy Eyes Todd (US) (Miguel Angel Silva) Alexis Moreno
- Tacitus (US) (William Mott) John Velasquez
- Derevo (Great Britain) (Abdullah Mushrif) Cristian Demuro