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UK Racing goes to Riyadh

Something very different here as I have headed out to Saudi Arabia and Riyadh as a guest of The Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia (JCSA), and I was expecting and have received a new experience.

Those of us of a certain age were brought up to associate going racing with a drinkie or ten of the alcoholic kind, but I am going out with my eyes wide open (and my liver on a detox), fully aware we are talking about a dry country – and I hoped to be too enthralled to even notice.

Now we may think we have all the racing history here in the UK, but you have to wonder how long prestige (which does not pay the bills) can make up for a lack of realistic prize money, and the Saudi Cup has decided to make their mark with $10 million for the winner of the Saudi Cup, an eye watering sum that has attracted possibly the best field yet assembled, and with a quality undercard including the Saudi Derby.

For those unfamiliar with the Saudi Cup, we are talking “new kid on the block”, with the inaugural running in 2020, making this year just the fifth anniversary, though to be fair, they have been racing in Saudi Arabia since the 1920’s, (with the first official race in 1965), so a century is far nearer to the mark. 

They do not do things by halves over here with both the dirt and turf tracks looking superb when I ventured out to trackwork at five o’clock Wednesday morning, and a grandstand that puts all of ours to shame, but I was there to see the horses, though as I do not watch them on a regular basis, all I was looking for was fitness and a bit of zest in their work.

Chin-wagging over a coffee with friends I have made from around the racing world over the years, notes were taken and eyebrows raised, but I was unwilling to draw too many conclusions until after the draw and one more visit to the track the following morning.

Add in interviews with many of the trainers (which are a who’s who of the racing world) - Richard Fahey, Marco Botti, Ian Williams, Mick Appleby, Bill Mott, Jose D’Angelo, Rick Dutrow Jnr, Hidetaka Otonashi, Steve Asmussen, Aidan O’Brien, Bob Baffert, the Kublers, the Gosdens, and Andrew Balding (plus others) will all be asked in front of a mike at some time if at all possible, and I have heeded their words of wisdom and added them into the mix before makong nay decisions – though it may be easier to go through Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity looking for mistakes than it is to try to compare form from around the world.

Too much information cannot be a bad thing is a much-used phrase, but I now disagree - with every trainer seemingly bullish about their chances where do we begin. 

Sadly, the answer is NOT with the International Jockeys Challenge on the Friday afternoon which is frankly beyond me, four races, all handicaps, and with jockeys who may have never sat on their horses before. From a winner finding perspective, none of that is good news for us, but I have to applaud them for attracting a stellar line-up of riders, including our own Ryan Moore, French superstar Maxime Guyon, the tempted out of retirement Damian Oliver, and possibly the strongest Ladies team imaginable which includes Saffie Osborne, New Zealand legend Lisa Allpress, and star of the future (trust me on this one) Rachel Venniker. 

It will be a great afternoon and I am confident we will see some exciting finishes, but unknowns in handicaps are not for me, though I will add I believe the Ladies will come out on top, and comfortably at that.

On to Saturday, and I cannot cover every race, but we can start off with the Saudi Derby over the mile at 2.00pm UK time. 

I am not convinced it is quite as all over as some would have you believe, but there is plenty of confidence from the Japanese contingent that Forever Young may well be the next big thing in a Country slowly but surely starting to take over. 

Unbeaten so far, the son of Real Steel has won three out of three with a very impressive victory last time out, bolting up by seven lengths at Kawasaki with the rest strung out behind and 35 lengths from first to last. He is the likeliest winner with any further improvement but is priced accordingly back home, and if you fancy a bigger priced alternative, you could do a lot worse than Bentornato, beaten a length into third at Gulfsteam last time out, but the winner of his previous four starts, and way overpriced at 12/1.

Likely winner: Forever Young
Alternative: Bentornato

The Europeans have a pretty strong hand in the Turf Sprint at 3.25pm over six and a half furlongs, with Annaf (Mick Appleby), Art Power (Tim Easterby), Jumby (Eve Johnson Houghton), Mysterious Night (Charlie Appleby), and Matilda Picotte (Kieran Cotter) all expected to get in the firing line where it counts. 

Now I am a huge fan of Mick Appleby so I will be cheering on his runner regardless, but its Irish raider Matilda Picotte that appeals the most – albeit very narrowly. She gets 5lb from all her male rivals thank to her sex allowance, and in case last summer is little more than a distant memory, she finished third in the 1000 Guineas in May and won her last two starts over seven furlongs at Doncaster and Newmarket, finishing with an official rating of 111. 

Likely to burst out of the 14 stall under Oisin Murphy and attempt to make every post a winning one, she is rated 6lb superior to favourite Mysterous Night, yet receives 5lb, suggesting if she gets a good trip and is ready to roll as hoped, she has every chance – though I am wary that she might need to be bustled along early to get to the lead from her bad draw. Alternatives at better prices are difficult to find here, with La La Christine thrown out there as an option, just in case she can repeat or better her winning Japanese form.

Likely winner: Matilda Picotte
Alternative: La La Christine

On to the mile and a quarter Turf Cup at 4.10pm next, and having seen how narrow the track is, we will need to see Ryan Moore at his sublime best to get Luxembourg home in front from the 13 stall. 

I have no doubt at all that on his day he is the best horse in the race, with a short-head second to Romantic Warrior in Hong Kong in the Hong Kong Cup on his latest start in December. A one-time winter Derby favourite, he is yet to live up those lofty aspirations despite three Group One victories, but is a class act regardless, looked the part in his work this morning, and has the World’s best jockey in the saddle to steer him home. 

Spirit Dancer is in good form according to trainer Richard Fahey at a press conference this morning where he didn’t even seem too fearful of the selection, and if he is correct then the seven-year-old could also go close and surprise a few.

Likely winner: Luxembourg
Alternative: Spirit Dancer

Although I wish the Brits well in the handicap at 4.50pm, one more race will do for me, and it has to be the Saudi Cup
itself due off at 5.40pm and the meeting finale. Have I said its worth $20,000,000 making it the World’s richest race, or that the winner gets a cool $10,000,000, and even the 10th home gets $200,000 or so, because if not I ought to – those are telephone numbers, and we have a field to match.

They have come from around the World and include the likes of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner White Abarrio, runner-up Derma Sotogake, and Dubai World Cup winner Ushba Tesoro as well as Japanese dirt Horse of the Year Lemon Pop, and Preakness winner National Treasure for Bob Baffert, who handled the runner up last year. Add in the Dubai challenge of Isolate for Doug Watson and the locally trained Carmel Road who worked incredibly on Wednesday morning, and you can begin to understand why my head hurts.

Decisions have to be made (probably wrong ones), and its White Abarrio for me. I have never seen so many grey horses working in all my years, but he looks the best of them, and trainer Richard Dutrow Jnr seems as confident as anyone here. He has the horse “in a zone” (his words not mine), and with the trip and the single turn seen as just what the son of Race Day needs to be seen at his best, I am hoping he can come home alone. 

Carmel Road is a much bigger priced runner here, but someone with a lot more trackwork experience than me suggested he was working exceptionally, and at huge odds he could hit the frame and reward his supporters.

Likely winner: White Abarrio
Alternative: Carmel Road

NOTE - the nine race Riyadh broadcast commences at 11.00pm AEST on Saturday night on Sky Racing2 and from 11.40pm AEST on Sky Racing1 - ThoroughbredNEWS News Desk

Luxembourg, picture Liesl King

 

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