The 2023 Saudi Cup has drawn an understandably broad cast of contenders from Europe, Asia, and the US, as we have come to expect of the race over the last four years. But for a special set of reasons, this year there are runners who have relatively good shots at taking down the favorite Taiba, if not also his stablemate and erstwhile second-favorite-and/or-seeming-third-favorite Country Grammer, depending on whose odds you’re following.
As stated, although he certainly proved otherwise in his last outing at Santa Anita in the Malibu Stakes, one of Taiba’s problems lies in his starts. Some are less lackadaisical than others. The Malibu showed a new level of maturity and tactical ability from Taiba, so the Baffert camp is quite confident. But the draw for Saturday added an additional hurdle by doling out a post position on the deep inside — with eleven horses outside him. In a race of nine furlongs with a field this large and tight, it demands a snappy break and a burst of early speed, in neither of which disciplines Taiba’s necessarily considered a master.
Just a step or two higher in the odds are some horses who don’t operate under that historical hurdle, chief among them Cafe Pharoah. Although he is Kentucky-bred and then some — being sired by Triple Crown winning phenomenon American Pharoah — Cafe Pharoah has spent his racing life in Japan where, following in the footsteps of his amazing sire, he has racked up an impressive seven victories in thirteen career starts.
The Japanese racing community is nothing if not tenacious and the owners flock to the meetings in Riyadh and Dubai, but that is not the reason for Cafe Pharoah’s descending odds. Notably, the colt is in some markets the second favorite, edging Taiba’s stablemate Country Grammer down a rung in the touts’ estimation, as we can see in this set of odds from Brisnet, here:
(Program Number, Post Position, Horse, Odds)
1, 13. Café Pharoah, 4-1
2, 10. Country Grammer, 6-1
3, 3. Crown Pride, 10-1
4, 8. Emblem Road, 10-1
5, 12. Geoglyph, 20-1
6, 6. Jun Light Bolt, 8-1
7, 1. Panthalassa, 10-1
8, 7. Remorse, 30-1
9, 4. Scotland Yard, 20-1
10, 2. Taiba, 5-2
11, 9. Vin De Garde, 20-1
12, 11. Lagertha Rhyme, 30-1
13, 5. Sunset Flash, 30-1
(Odds: Brisnet, 2/24/2023)
Jun Light Bolt gets into the mix by a less celebrated, more soldierly route. His sire is King Kamehameha and the six-year-old has had a total of six graded stakes starts, of which he has won three, a very respectable percentage. But for a horse his age, there just are not a lot of races on his card. He’s good at the Japanese versions of this distance, at Japanese tracks but the Saudi Cup appears to be his first real trip abroad His career was heavily punctuated by two pandemic-related four-hundred-day breaks without a race.
Put another way, all told, Jun Light Bolt has suffered an eight hundred day interruption of his racing. That’s two years and then some. All those hurdles noted, is a gritty winner and has bounced back from those two year-plus breaks, with literally one race in between them. That is grit. If he brings that grit to his run on Saturday, he’s going to cause some Taiba believers, along with Taiba, some trouble.
Last year’s surprising Saudi Cup victor Emblem Road requires a different sort of thinking altogether. He’s five, but to say that he is lightly raced is the heaviest sort of understatement, and adding to such matters, of his four lifetime starts, his last outing at King Abdulaziz was an allowance. On the plus side, this is his home track and his notable win last year does earn him some kind of consideration — he’s the Saudi equivalent of the Kentucky Derby’s Rich Strike.
Far more likely than a repeat victory, however, is his role as a spoiler in the middle of the race, as Taiba and the top favorites of Country Grammer and Cafe Pharoah — both of whom are likelier to have conserved energy for the second half of the race — gather themselves for the stretch duel. Emblem Road can be there in the end. But he’s more aptly cast this year as a spoiler in the stretch rather than the hero of it.