EMBLEM ROAD (W Ramos) beats COUNTRY GRAMMER (right) in The Saudi Cup King Abdulaziz Racecourse, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 26 Feb 2022 - Pic Steven Cargill / Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: The home defence prevails in Saudi

Two years ago the Saudi Cup was staged for the first time with a total prize fund of $20 million ($10 million to the winner) and therefore the richest single horse race anywhere in the world. There was little surprise when US-trained horses came out on top in the nine-furlong event on the dirt course close to Riyadh.

The winner that day was Maximum Security, the horse that had also finished first past the post in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.  Immediately after the Derby, Maximum Security was disqualified for causing interference on the final bend and was relegated to 17th of the 19 runners under the stringent US interference rules.

The horse’s owners, which include the Coolmore partners, must have been relieved that the Saudi Cup was at least a financial consolation for losing the Derby. Sensationally, though, within a few days of that inaugural running, news came that the colt’s trainer Jason Servis had been arrested. He is named as one of 27 individuals implicated in a US-wide horse doping conspiracy. Their inevitably complex trial is expected to begin next year.

The first actual recipient of the Saudi cash therefore – before Newcastle United and the golfers wanting to play in the Kingdom-inspired planned breakaway from the PGA tour – was Prince Abdul Rahman Abdullah Faisal. The Prince, usually referred to as Prince Faisal in the UK, with his Gosden-trained Mishriff, won the race last year. He, of course, is from the Saudi Royal family.

His horse was back again for the Cup’s third running on Saturday, but he finished last, virtually pulled up by David Egan. The home team this time enjoyed both sides of the triumph, not just a Saudi-owned (again a Prince from the ruling family) but also by dint of its Saudi trainer.

That horse was Emblem Road, a US-bred son of Quality Road, sourced as a two-year-old for around $80,000 at Ocala in Florida, and he came into Saturday’s race with six wins in eight starts, yet started 80-1 (or 50-1, depending on which report you believe).

The price was understandable as he faced the reigning Kentucky Derby winner Mandaloun, also unbeaten in three runs since that day before Saturday, as well as well-touted fellow Americans Country Grammer and Midnight Bourbon.

The former of that pair is trained by Bob Baffert, another high-profile US trainer several of whose best horses have been found to have had illegal substances in their post-race samples and who is soon to face an inquiry into one of those instances. Interestingly, it was to Baffert that Maximum Security was switched after the Jason Servis licence was suspended two years ago.

Hopes for Emblem Road were drastically reduced when the colt started very slowly but his 53-year-old rider Wigberto Ramos did not panic. A Panamanian who has been riding in Saudi Arabia for the past 24 years, “Wiggy” knows the track as well as any jockey and he steadily made up his ground.

There was still more to be retrieved as Country Grammer set off for home, offering Baffert high hopes of his cut of the $10 million; but Emblem Road, buoyed by his own extensive experience of his home track, would not be denied and got up close home to win by half a length.

The victory was a massive triumph for his local trainer Mitab Almulawah and it must be very possible that his smart and tough four-year-old might be deployed to Meydan to challenge for the Dubai World Cup, victory in which would propel him even higher up the world top earnings table.

I remember when I first started working back in 1990 with the late Prince Ahmed Salman and his Thoroughbred Corporation team which won so many major races around the world, asking whether the family was on a par with the Maktoum family.

The answer came from my pal Jack Rusbridge, the late Prince’s main security advisor, who replied: “No contest. The Saudis’ wealth is a bottomless pit!” Phil Mickelson and Eddie Howe are well aware of that, never mind Baffert who for all the disappointment of his near miss in the big race, collected his share of around $3.5 million for Country Grammer’s second and the victory of his 7-4 favourite Pinehurst in the Saudi Derby earlier on the card.

The rivalry between Dubai and Riyadh is such that the failure of any of the Godolphin ten to win a race would have been regarded as a triumph on the ground for the home team. Rather than any of the more anticipated centres of success, the remaining four races open to the invaders all went to that upwardly-mobile source of big-race excellence that is Japan.

Two wins on the second day of the Breeders’ Cup with Marche Lorraine – sixth to Emblem Road on Saturday – and Loves Only You, who went on to win the Longines Hong Kong Cup in December, jolted many of us to their ever-expanding horizons.

But this was something on an altogether different scale. All four were ridden by Christophe Lemaire who, in the manner of all true international jockeys of the highest order, instantly knew how to handle this track. Three turf races opened the feast, Lemaire making all in two with a come from behind run in between. Then later, in the Turf sprint, he was back in making-all vein, completing an astonishing four-timer for this powerful racing nation.

**

There was some decent jump racing back home at the weekend and it was good to see Milton Harris winning the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton with the now unbeaten-in-five over timber, Knight Salute, who needed to overcome a 5lb penalty for his earlier two Graded wins.

Expensive recruits from the flat were easily brushed aside and while it might have been tight if the Gary Moore-trained Teddy Blue had jumped the last two flights better, Knight Salute looks the main domestic hope for the Triumph Hurdle against the Mullins/Elliott platoon.

Staying chases were the other prime targets for owners and trainers, and both Newcastle’s Eider Chase and then Kempton’s Coral Handicap Chase were mopped up by the mop-haired (although he has trimmed it a shade!) Christian Williams.

Always a shrewdie in his riding days as a generally second-string jump jockey, he seems even more astute as a trainer. He says the plans for the multiple entries for these two valuable prizes were fixed months ago and they were rewarded when Win My Wings justified heavy support down to 11-2 favouritism at Newcastle. Cap Du Nord, 15 minutes later, with Williams – anxiously on course in the paddock at Sunbury - led home a stable one-two completed by Kitty’s Light.

The three Williams contributors collected almost £160,000. On what was the worst performance of his life Mandaloun “earned” £222,222 for finishing ninth in the world’s richest race.

For anyone waiting for news of Glen Again who now has been taken out twice so far when due to make his hurdles debut, I can tell you he has two possible entries later this week. Ian Williams has to choose between Ludlow on Thursday and Newbury the following day. At least the ground will not be heavy wherever he goes.

- TS

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