In its fourth running, the $20 million Saudi Cup effectively turned into a Middle East edition of the Japan Cup.
Fielding six of the 13 starters, Japan swept four of the top five placings in the Group 1 Saudi Cup on Feb. 25 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse. Panthalassa led all the way to a 3/4-length victory over Country Grammer, who spoiled the Japanese sweep by finishing second for the second straight year with a late run.
Cafe Pharoah got home third, followed by Geoglyph and Crown Pride. Last year’s winner, Emblem Road, reared at the start and couldn’t make up the lost ground, finishing sixth, and this year’s favorite, Country Grammer’s stablemate, Taiba, chased the early pace into the turn but faded and finished eighth.
Panthalassa, a 6-year-old, won the Group 1 Dubai Turf Stakes last March in a dead heat with Lord North, who coincidentally won the Group 3 Winter Derby on the Lingfield Park all-weather course in England just hours before the Saudi Cup.
Making only his second start on dirt, Panthalassa responded immediately when jockey Yutaka Yoshido gunned him out of the inside gate with early pressure from Crown Pride, winner of the 2022 UAE Derby and part of the hot early pace in the 2022 Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve.
At no point in the race did Panthalassa appear threatened. He finished the 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) in 1:50.80.
“Panthalassa had a perfect start today,” said winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi. “It was a masterful job from the jockey. When I drew barrier one, I thought this was a big advantage to him but it worked perfectly.
“I really can’t believe it. I don’t know if it is real at the moment. I think I was correct that my feeling was right that he could handle the dirt. You know this is not easy. Japanese racing tries everything to improve and develop. Japanese horse racing has become more international. Of course, this is the best feeling as the prize money is the best!”
Yoshido agreed the surface change made no difference to Panthalassa.
“Of course, they were coming for me in the straight, but Panthalassa always found another gear and so I kept riding,” Yoshido said. “It is an unforgettable moment, and I am very happy to have ridden the winner.”
Panthalassa’s only previous start on the dirt produced an 11th-place finish in a listed race at Nakayama Racecourse and his sire was a highly successful turf sprinter. His grandsire, King Kamehameha, however, has produced successful dirt runners and his name appears in the pedigrees of four of the six Japanese Saudi Cup runners.
After an undistinguished early career, Panthalassa broke through on the international stage as a 5-year-old with the Dubai Turf triumph. Back home, he finished second in both the Group 2 Sapporo Kinen and the Group 2 Tenno Sho (Autumn). He ended the 2022 season with a 10th-place showing in the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup in December and the Saudi Cup was his seasonal debut.
Country Grammer, who led the 2022 Saudi Cup to the shadow of the wire before being nailed by Emblem Road, was the chaser this time. With Frankie Dettori in the irons, the 6-year-old son of Tonalist took the long way around rivals into the stretch and came up 3/4 length short while gaining with every stride.
“He ran a super race,” Dettori said of Country Grammer. “At the top of the straight, I thought, ‘Oh god, I’m going to finish sixth.’ But he just has too much heart. He wants a mile and a quarter. Super result. They were coming back to me, but the winning post was there.”
For trainer Bob Baffert, it was the second heartbreaking runner-up finish of the day and the second straight disappointment in the world’s richest race. Two races earlier, Havnameltdown was just caught at the finish of the Saudi Derby by locally trained Commissioner King and last year, Country Grammer just failed to hold off Emblem Road in the Cup.
“I always complain that stretch is too long,” Baffert said from his California base. “This year, it was too short.”
Taiba, he said, “just didn’t feel like running today. He’s a funny horse.”
Baffert said Taiba and Havnameltdown will return to California and Country Grammer will go on to Dubai to try to for a repeat victory in the Dubai World Cup.
“The good thing is, they run this race every year,” Baffert said. “We’ll be back.”
Elite Power was the best dirt sprinter in America last year. Now it can be said around the globe that there’s no better dirt sprinter.
The 5-year-old son of Curlin was a decisive winner against top-class international competition as he pulled away in the stretch to register a 3 1/4-length victory over fellow American Gunite in the Group 3 $1.5 million Riyadh Dirt Sprint Stakes Feb. 25 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Saudi Arabia.
Elite Power notched his sixth straight victory for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and first since a 1 1/4-length score in the Nov. 5 Qatar Racing Breeders’ Cup Sprint that led to his 2022 Eclipse Award as the champion sprinter.
“My first word is that he’s an airplane. I asked him to get a little closer, and he just took off, and he did the rest. It was unbelievable,” jockey Frankie Dettori said. “The turbo kicked in, and I was passenger after that.”
Gunite was fourth in the early stages as Meraas, trained by American Chad Summers, set the early pace. Once Elite Power powered past, Gunite, a homebred son of Gun Runner trained by Steve Asmussen, moved up in the final furlong to grab second and complete the American exacta, two lengths ahead of Remake.
Meraas, who started his career in Europe but was coming off a win at Aqueduct Racetrack, faded to last in nine. Dancing Prince, winner of last year’s Riyadh Dirt Sprint, was fifth. The final time was 1:11.01.