By Ed McNamara
Since forever, Arabs have revered the running horse. A legend of the Bedouins, nomads of the desert, says Allah created the horse from the South Wind and decreed: “You shall be Lord of other animals, and you shall fly without wings.”
Thousands of years later, we are in awe of thoroughbreds. All of them descend from three Arab stallions – the Byerly Turk, Godolphin Arabian and Darley Arabian – who were bred to English mares in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The Bedouin story also says Allah told the horse: “Men shall follow you wherever you go, riches shall be on your back and fortune will come from you.”
Which brings us to the most lucrative race in history, Saturday’s inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, said the event “demonstrates our resolve to develop this great sport in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and also our ambition to become a leading player on horse racing’s world stage.”
He’s proud of an ancestor who led his armies on horseback. King Abdulaziz, known as “The Last Horseman,” founded Saudi Arabia in 1932.
“My great-grandfather was the last military leader in the world to win his battles from the saddle,” Prince Bandar said. “And my grandfather, who was in his twenties, rode alongside him.”
The Saudi Cup’s $10 million winner’s share has lured horses from the United States, Ireland, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, a plane carrying Maximum Security, McKinzie, Mucho Gusto, Tacitus and Midnight Bisou arrived in Riyadh. The flight originated in Southern California, where Mucho Gusto and McKinzie left trainer Bob Baffert’s barn for an 8,300-mile, 18-hour journey through 11 time zones.
For megabucks, owners don’t hesitate to ship halfway around the world, and Baffert and the trainers of Tacitus (Bill Mott) and Midnight Bisou (Steve Asmussen) are used to competing in the Middle East. Mott took the first Dubai World Cup, then worth a record $4 million, with Cigar in 1996. Baffert won it in 1998 (Silver Charm), 2001 (Captain Steve) and 2017 (Arrogate), and Asmussen scored with Curlin in 2008.
“I like challenges, and we’ll see how we do,” Baffert said. “We have experience running over there in Dubai … and $20 million gets me off the couch.”
The 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup, with a maximum field of 14, will be run on dirt around one turn at a 17-year-old track modeled after Belmont Park. It has wide, sweeping turns and a 2½-furlong stretch. French champion Olivier Peslier has ridden there for many years.
“It’s one of the best dirt tracks in the world,” Peslier said. “It really suits the American horses well. It has a long straight and there is not much kickback.”
European star Frankie Dettori agrees.
“Of all the dirt tracks I’ve ridden, it’s the one I like best,” he said. “You can win from the front, and you can win from behind. It’s a fair track.”
The supporting card of seven dirt and turf races is worth a total of $9.2 million. The post-position draw is Tuesday, Feb. 25. Lasix will be prohibited, as it was for the Pegasus World Cup last month at Gulfstream Park.
Post time for the Saudi Cup is 12:30 p.m. ET, and it will be shown in the United States on FoxSports 1. TVG will televise the undercard starting at 8 a.m. ET. Many other networks will show it throughout the world, including the Middle East, Canada, Latin America, United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Africa, India, China, Japan and Australia.
Betting is illegal in Saudi Arabia, but there will be internet action everywhere. US Racing has made Maximum Security the 7-4 early favorite, followed by McKinzie (5-2), Mucho Gusto (11-2) and Midnight Bisou (6-1).
Maximum Security is 2-for-2 going 1 1/8 miles and 5-for-5 around one turn, so he’s the deserving chalk. Owner Gary West skipped the Pegasus to go for the ultimate prize.
“I wasn’t thinking about the Saudi Cup,” West said last month, “but why should I run for $3 million when I can run for $20 million four weeks later?”