Country Grammer, Taiba Headline 2023 Saudi Cup

The fourth running of the $20 million Saudi Cup Feb. 25 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse features a rematch of the first two finishers from 2022 plus a potent sextet from Japan and a few wild card possibilities.

Bob Baffert trains the only American horses in the field, last year’s runner-up Country Grammer and Taiba, and said after the field was drawn he doesn’t know what to expect from the opposition, especially the Japanese runners.

“I don’t know anything about them,” Baffert said from his Santa Anita headquarters. “But the Japanese have got it down pretty good now. They won just about everything there last year.”

Taiba got gate 2 for the 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup and Baffert said he “hoped he would draw a little more outside. “‘Country’ got number 10. But now that’s a problem for the jockeys. They’ll figure it out.”

Mike Smith rides Taiba and Frankie Dettori gets on Country Grammer.

Country Grammer did everything but win the 2022 Saudi Cup. The son of Tonalist hooked up with Midnight Bourbon in a stirring stretch duel but, just as he was drawing clear of that one with victory in sight, along came the local horse, Emblem Road, to pass them both and keep the $10 million winner’s share home in the Kingdom.

Country Grammer went on to win the $12 million Dubai World Cup Presented by Emirates Airline with Dettori taking over for Flavien Prat, and then posted three straight runner-up finishes in California before winning the San Antonio Stakes Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park.

“He loves it there,” Baffert said of Country Grammer and King Abdulaziz Racecourse. “He’s doing well. Shipped well.”

Taiba won three Grade 1 races as a 3-year-old, including the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby in his second career start, and finished best of the 3-year-olds in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic when third. He finished out of the money only once, in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, where he was 12th.

“There’s a lot there,” Baffert said of Taiba. “He’s not going to wow you in the morning but when he gets in the gate, the light goes on.”

“It’s a real challenge when you go to the Saudi Cup,” Baffert added. “It’s one of the toughest races in the world. I thought we had it won twice but I haven’t won it yet. It’s exciting, though. It adds value to these horses and I think it’s very important for Americans to support these races.”

The six Japanese runners all have credentials but all also have question marks about the surface or distance of the race.

Jun Light Bolt was relatively disappointing through much of his career while contesting mid-level turf events. The 6-year-old horse came to life when introduced to the Japanese dirt strips, winning his last three starts including the Champions Cup at Tokyo Racecourse Dec. 4. Ryan Moore has the mount and starts from gate 6.

“Several frontrunners drew inside so there is going to be plenty of early speed,” said Jun Light Bolt’s trainer, Yasuo Tomomichi. “From gate 6, I believe he can settle anywhere the jockey wants to be.”

Crown Pride won the 2022 U.A.E. Derby Sponsored by Mubadala, then contributed to the scorching pace that set up Rich Strike’s upset victory in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished 13th. He’s had three races since the Derby, finishing second each time, most recently in the Champions Cup behind Jun Light Bolt.

Cafe Pharoah has been a serious customer going a mile on the dirt and won the 2021 and 2022 editions of the February Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse. Only two of his seven career wins have come at longer trips and those were against lesser company.

Geoglyph and Vin de Garde both make their first start on dirt. The former has not won since the Satsuki Sho (Japanese Two Thousand Guineas) in April of 2022 and appears to be looking for a jumpstart. Vin de Garde raced only twice in 2022, finishing third in the Dubai Turf  and 15th in the Yasuda Kinen June 5 in his most recent race. He was 12th in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile at Del Mar in 2021.

Panthalassa won the Dubai Turf last March at Meydan but finished 10th in the Hong Kong Cup in December in his most recent start. He has made only one start on dirt, finishing 11th in a minor stakes in 2020 at Nakayama Racecourse.

Hopes are high among the locals after last year’s dramatic win.

Emblem Road has run only once since his dramatic upset in the 2022 Saudi Cup under Wigberto Ramo – that being a warmup for the 2023 Cup in which he defeated 18 overmatched rivals Jan. 13. Alexis Moreno takes the reins this year and starts from post 8.

“I’m so happy with the number eight,” Moreno said. “He’s a late horse from the gate, so I can be outside easily. He’s doing very well, he’s run well and I hope he can do it again.”

Stablemate Scotland Yard started his career on the Louisiana-Kentucky circuit with trainer Steve Asmussen but was unable to find the winner’s circle in four starts. Sold to HRH Prince Saud bin Salman Stables for $255,000 at the Fasig-Tipton July Horses of Racing Age Sale, he won his first Saudi start in December and started 2023 off with a bang with victories in the King Faisal Cup and the prestigious Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup, both at King Abdulaziz Racecourse.

Remorse, another local contender, finished sixth in the 2022 Dubai World Cup. He was last seen checking in third in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 over the same course Feb. 3 for up-and-coming trainer Bhupat Seemar.

Lagertha Rhyme and Sunset Flash complete the lineup.