Arguably the two highest-profile dirt horses in America are primed for battle in the second running of the Saudi Cup in Riyadh.
The eyes of a large part of the racing world will be on the Bob Baffert-trained Charlatan and Brad Cox’s Knicks Go at the King Adbulaziz Racetrack on Saturday, as they clash in a must-see running of the $20million showpiece.
Charlatan was considered a leading Kentucky Derby contender last year, before a setback brought his season to a premature halt, while Knicks Go has been a revelation since joining the Cox barn – winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the Pegasus World Cup.
Knicks Go answered stamina questions in tremendous style in the Pegasus – while Baffert’s charge returned to action over Christmas, winning the Malibu Stakes in exhilarating fashion.
Baffert is not in Saudi this year, but sent out Mucho Gusto to be fourth to Maximum Security 12 months ago and enjoyed the experience.
The Hall of Fame trainer said: “It was exciting last year, it was different. The facilities were really great. It was a great experience – it went pretty smoothly, and there was a great atmosphere.
“We just made it off his lay-off in time to run in the Malibu in December – and after that race we were thinking about the Pegasus, but it was coming back a little bit too quick. I really had to rush him into the Malibu.
“I think the Saudi Cup is perfect timing for him. It’s $20million, one-turn mile and an eighth – and I think coming off a seven-eighths race, the way he did it, it’s a perfect distance for him.
“He’s got a great mind on him and he’s a good gate horse. It’s challenging to go to Saudi or Dubai or wherever. You need a horse who has a really great mind – and he’s got a great mind.”
The son of Speightstown has run only four times, but Baffert is not fazed at the task in hand for Mike Smith’s mount.
He said: “I think his talent makes up for his (lack of) experience and I think he has enough experience – he doesn’t know what it’s like to lose, and I think that’s a good trait.
“I think the race fits the bill perfectly for him. To win these races you need to be way the best. I’ve won the Dubai World Cup, because I had way the best horse. You have to have way the best horse when you are travelling that far.”
On facing Knicks Go and the threat his speed poses, Baffert said: “They’re sort of the same type of horse – Knicks Go, I think two turns he likes better because he can get away from his competition. Speed horses like that are so dangerous going two turns – going one turn a mile and an eighth is a different story.
“I think to put the horse where he is more comfortable (is best), don’t chase. I think when you chase, those speed horses beat you if you chase them, because you get tired. The break is so important. Charlatan was chasing a pretty fast horse (Nashville) last time – and he got to him pretty easily.
“Charlatan is a really talented horse and he’s just maturing and getting really good now.”
Cox could hardly be happier with Knicks Go, who won a Grade One as a juvenile and is now fulfilling all his potential at the age of five. He is on a four-race winning streak for his new stable and could even go on to the Dubai World Cup, should all go well.
Cox said: “He’s continued since the Pegasus to show us what he showed us prior to the Pegasus and prior to the Breeders’ Cup. This race is back a little quick, but one thing that gives us confidence is that he won the Pegasus without Lasix, and this race is without Lasix too.
“Another thing is this is five weeks from the Pegasus, and it was five weeks between his allowance win where he broke the track record at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup.
“He had a little bit of a freshening of a couple easy weeks after the Breeders’ Cup and before the Pegasus, so this is sort of a second race off a lay-off for him. Hopefully, after the race, he gives us confidence that he can travel internationally and compete.”
He added: “Right now we’re treating him as if this is his time to shine. If he’s able to do well in the Saudi Cup and then do well in Dubai, that would be very special. If he were able to win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Pegasus, Saudi Cup and Dubai, it would be very similar to what Arrogate did with the Travers, the (Breeders’ Cup) Classic, Pegasus and Dubai.
“If he were able to do something like that, it would go down as one of the great streaks in racing history.
“It seems like two of the better horses obviously have a lot of speed and will make this a very good race.”
“We would try to get through these two and then ship him back to the States and work our way back from the Breeders’ Cup after this. Whether that’s the Dirt Mile or the Classic, his runs in Saudi Arabia and Dubai will tell us which one, so it’s one race at a time.”
Drawn in five, Knicks Go will not have to look far to see Charlatan (nine) when the stalls open.
Cox said: “He doesn’t have to have the lead, he’s just a really honest horse who likes to be forwardly placed. When the gate comes open, we’ll let the jock (Joel Rosario) play the break and place him accordingly.
“The post will be important, obviously. I watched the race last year several times, and it’s hard to get a read on it because the horse on the lead (Mucho Gusto, fourth) was so far off the rail and then (Midnight Bisou, second) was actually glued to the rail – so it’s hard to know how the track plays. It seems like two of the better horses obviously have a lot of speed and will make this a very good race.”
British hopes are led by the John Gosden-trained Mishriff (David Egan), who ran a fine race when second in the Saudi Derby last year on his way to winning the French Derby.
Connections are happy to have been handed a wide draw.
“John Gosden said all along he wanted a wide draw to stay out of the way of the kickback and the speed at the beginning from the American horses. With stall 12, he probably got his wishes there,” said Ted Voute, racing manager to owner Prince Faisal.
“I hope we’re good enough to beat the American horses. It would be wonderful if a European horse could. It’s what dreams are made of.”
Mishriff is joined by stablemate Global Giant (Frankie Dettori) – while Hollie Doyle partners Extra Elusive for Roger Charlton, and Andrew Balding runs smart all-weather performer Bangkok (Ryan Moore).
Balding is concerned with Bangkok’s low draw.
“Whether he’s streetwise enough for a draw like that (stall two) we’ll find out, but I don’t know until it plays out,” said the Kingsclere handler.
“Hopefully he can run with credit.”