In its fourth edition, the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) effectively turned into a Middle East edition of the Japan Cup (G1).
With six of 13 starters, Japan won four of five placings on 25 February at King Abdulaziz Racecourse, led by Panthalassa , leading all the way to a 3/4-length victory. Only CountryGrammer spoiled the sweep and finished second for the second straight year with a late run.
Pharoah cafe came home third, followed by geoglyphAnd crown pride . Last year’s winner, Emblem Roadraised at the start and couldn’t make up lost ground, finished sixth, and this year’s favourite, Country Grammer’s stablemate, Taiba chased the early pace into the corner but faded and finished eighth.
Only of the six Japanese runners in the race June flash of light And Put down wine disappointed, with seventh and eleventh place respectively.
Panthalassa, a 6-year-old v Lord Canaloa from the Montjeu mare Miss Pemberly won the Dubai Turf (G1T) last March in a dead heat with Lord North who happened to win the Winter Derby (G3) on the all-weather track at Lingfield Park in England just hours before the Saudi Cup.
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Making only his second start on dirt, Panthalassa reacted immediately when jockey Yutaka Yoshido blasted him out of the inside gate, chased by a dogged Crown Pride, winner of the 2022 UAE Derby (G2) and part of the hot early pace in the Kentucky derby.
At no point in the race did Panthalassa appear threatened and he finished the 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) in 1:50.80. Country Grammer closed late to finish three quarters of a length behind the winner.
“Panthalassa got off to a perfect start today,” said winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi. “I applaud Yutaka’s jump. It was a masterful performance from the jockey. When I pulled barrier one I thought it was a big advantage for him, but it worked perfectly.
“I really can’t believe it. I don’t know if it’s real at this point. I think I was right that my feeling was right that he could handle the dirt. You know this isn’t easy. Japanese racing is trying everything to improve and develop. Japanese horse racing has become more international. Of course, this is the best feeling, because the prize money is the best!”
Connections for Panthalassa are celebrating after winning the Saudi Cup at King Abdulaziz Racetrack
Yoshido agreed that the surface change made no difference to Panthalassa.
“Of course they came after me on the straight, but Panthalassa always found another gear and so I kept driving,” said Yoshido. “It’s an unforgettable moment and I’m very happy to have driven the winner.”
Yahagi indicated that the rest of the world could start looking forward to the cream of the crop of the Japanese racing world.
“If my owners (Hiroo Race) let me go to Europe I would love the challenge,” he said.
Panthalassa’s only previous start on the sand came in 11th place in a listed race at Nakayama Racecourse, and his father was a very successful turf sprinter. However, his grandfather, King Kamehameha (JPN), produced successful dirt runners and his name appears in the pedigrees of four Japanese Saudi Cup runners.
After an unremarkable early career, Panthalassa broke onto the international scene as a 5-year-old with the Dubai Turf triumph. At home, he finished second in both the Sapporo Kinen (G2) and the Tenno Sho (Fall) (G2). He ended the 2022 season with a 10th-place finish in the Hong Kong Cup (G1) in December, and the Saudi Cup was his season 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 around. 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 short while winning every step of the way. He came under a drive on the turn when he couldn’t gain ground on the leaders.
“He drove 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 came back to me, but the winning post was there.”
Joao Moreira, aboard Café Pharoah, said: “The wide draw didn’t help but I was able to get him into a position where he was in and saved ground. He hit the line really strong and we almost won the race . I am very happy with his run.”
For trainer Bob Baffert, it was the second heartbreaking runner-up of the day and the second consecutive near-miss in the world’s richest race. Two races earlier, Havnameltdown was caught just at the finish of the Saudi Derby by locally trained Commissioner Kingand last year Country Grammer settled for second place in the Saudi Cup.
“I always complain that stretching is too long,” Baffert said from his base in California. “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 would return to California, and Country Grammer would go to Dubai to try for a repeat victory in the Mach 25 Dubai World Cup (G1).
“The good thing is they run this race every year,” said Baffert. “We come back.”