The $20 million Saudi Cup was expected to be a two-horse race but the Pegasus World Cup winner Knicks Go weakened and the UK-trained Mishriff managed to close on Charlatan to win by a length at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh on February 20, 2021. Great Scot, a locally trained long shot took third ahead of the more fancied Knicks Go who finished fourth.
Trained by Bob Baffert, the super-talented but fragile four-year-old Charlatan came into the race unbeaten in his total of four starts. He won the Malibu Stakes and the Arkansas Derby but was subsequently disqualified from the latter after the laboratory results came in. He was the favorite for the 2020 Kentucky Derby but missed the race as he had to have surgery to fix a problem with his fetlock.
The five-year-old Knicks Go was unbeaten since he joined Brad Cox’s barn in January 2020. He was a top quality juvenile but lost his way as a three-year-old when saddled by Ben Colebrook for the Korea Race Authority. Cox created a customized training regime to suit his exuberant character that resulted in an impressive series of four wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in a record-breaking time at Keeneland.
Knicks Go and Charlatan were heavily favored in the betting with the main United States’ racebooks for good reason but they were both accustomed to scoring from the front. There was always the possibility that they could cut each other’s throats in the battle for the lead and leave the door open for a closer.
Mishriff was understandably a fairly distant third in the sportsbooks’ Saudi Cup odds. He had impressive form on turf, taking the French Derby in style in July 2020 and following up with a Group 2 at Deauville in August. Both those races were run over a mile and a quarter so stamina was not going to be an issue.
This four-year-old son of Make Believe bred by Nawara Stud and owned by Prince Faisal had also proved that he could perform on the dirt at this track when finishing second in the Samba Saudi Derby last year. The result was particularly impressive as he blew his chances by starting slowly under David Egan and was only beaten two and a quarter lengths by the Japanese-trained winner, Full Flat. He came into the Saudi Cup as a fresh horse as he had not raced since disappointing at Ascot in October in a Group 1 under Frankie Dettori.
Mishriff’s Newmarket-based trainer John Gosden has staged many successful raids in the US, taking the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf with his now retired star mare Enable. He also trained Raven’s Pass, the sire of Mishriff’s dam. Owned by Princess Haya of Jordan, Raven’s Pass not only won at the top level on turf but succeeded in his only start on dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in 2008 and was subsequently retired to stud. Raven’s Pass finished nearly three lengths ahead of the legendary Curlin who took fourth. The rigors of quarantine dictated that Gosden did not travel with Mishriff but delegated the job to his capable son Thady. Baffert also watched the race from the comfort of California.
What happened in the race?
As expected, Knicks Go was ridden forward by Joel Rosario from gate five and grabbed the rail and took the lead early on. Smith was not far behind on Charlatan from his wider post and soon joined him on his outside to contest the top spot. Mishriff broke well under David Egan from his wide draw and was soon able to take third, closely pursued by Hollie Doyle on Extra Elusive, Military Law and Tacitus. Great Scot allowed the leaders to do their thing and saved ground by grabbing the rail in eighth.
Knicks Go soon backed off slightly allowing Charlatan to take the lead but was at his side, denying him the shortest route. They were neck and neck and Knicks Go briefly had his head in front approaching the far turn. As they rounded the turn Charlatan regained the lead whilst Mishriff ran clear of the pursuing pack about a length behind the leading duo. Egan was animated but Smith and Rosario had crouched low but barely moved. Tacitus was two lengths behind Mishriff followed by Great Scot. The rest of the pack looked unlikely to feature in the finish.
A quarter of a mile from the wire Knicks Go was passed by Charlatan who took the lead by a length. Rosario sensibly accepted his fate and did not reach for his whip. It was less than a month since his trail-blazing Pegasus victory so Knicks Go had excuses for getting tired. While Rosario gently pushed with hands and heels, Egan was more vigorous on Mishriff and passed Knicks Go in pursuit of Charlatan. The trio were well clear of the pack that was headed by Tacitus in the unusually long stretch.
Two hundred meters from home Mishriff eyeballed Charlatan and gradually went past him to win by a length. Great Scot achieved a similar result farther back, passing the tiring Tacitus and Knicks Go to take third under Adel Alfouraidi for his trainer Abdullah Mushrif, seven and a half lengths behind the winner. Sleepy Eyes Todd, another longshot, stayed on to take fifth for Miguel Silva under Alexis Moreno ahead of Military Law.
First two jockeys in trouble
Both Egan and Smith were penalized for their riding in the Saudi Cup. Egan made the mistake of using the whip once more than the ten strikes permitted at the track on Mishriff and was fined 10% of his share of the winnings and stood down for two days. Fortunately his father John who is also a jockey who has ridden over 2,000 winners in numerous countries was at the track to witness his victory and will be there to console him. That extra strike with the whip cost his son approximately $100,000.
Smith was fined double that amount for overuse of the whip in this race last year when chasing home Maximum Security on Steve Asmussen’s Midnight Bisou. The 2020 winner’s prize fund has not been released as Maximum Security’s trainer at that time is under investigation for possible use of banned substances. This year Smith was not fined but suspended for two days for careless riding. When he rushed Charlatan out of stall nine nothing immediately appeared to be wrong but close examination of the replay showed that he crossed the path of Sleepy Eyes Todd who jumped from gate eight.
David Egan is 21 years old and is entitled to get over excited in the world’s richest race. Mike Smith, at twice his age, should know better.