In Mighty Mishriff We Trust

Mishriff undertakes an easy canter on the dirt under Ben de Paiva | Emma Berry


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia–In its short history, the Saudi Cup meeting has not been short of drama. It has also not been slow in ensuring Group 1 status, which it carries this year for the third running of the world's richest race. 

It is a deserved uplift. Last year's winner of the $20 million Saudi Cup, Mishriff (Ire) (Make Believe {GB}), was a Classic winner coming into the race, and won another two Group 1s in Dubai and Britain following his success in Riyadh. What's more, he had the subsequent Breeders' Cup Classic winner and American Horse of the Year Knicks Go (Paynter) behind him in fourth in the Cup.

This triumph by a globetrotting star owned and bred by Saudi Arabia's Prince Faisal was everything the race needed following an unwelcome turn of events in the aftermath of the inaugural Saudi Cup. A matter of days after Maximum Security (New Year's Day) won in 2020 his initial trainer Jason Servis was charged with race fixing and the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the U.S. and is currently awaiting trial. Within a month of that first international gathering, the world went into a Covid-enforced lockdown, which persisted though last year's meeting, staged in an elite sport 'bubble' with only a small number of participants and spectators present. 

This time around, the world is a little freer but no less dappled by ongoing controversies within the wider racing world. In the quarantine barn is stabled the horse who has just been crowned the Kentucky Derby winner of 2021, some ten months after the race was run. Mandaloun (Into Mischief), who is one of the main chances to take the third running of the Saudi Cup on Saturday, could well be in the unusual position of having 'won' two Group/Grade 1 races within a week, having been awarded the Kentucky Derby on official confirmation on Monday of the disqualification of the late Medina Spirit. The latter's trainer Bob Baffert now faces a 90-day suspension and is represented in the Saudi Cup by Country Grammer (Tonalist), who, like Medina Spirit, is owned by Saudi-born Amr Zedan.

Mandaloun remained in the barn on Wednesday morning. His compatriot  Art Collector (Bernardini) ventured out and stood placidly watching the equine world go by on the main track at King Abdulaziz racecourse. Breezing past amid the strong Japanese contingent–always a delight at any international race meeting–was the shock GI Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Marche Lorraine (JPN) (Orfevre {JPN}). The 6-year-old mare, looking pretty woolly having been plunged back into a Japanese winter after her golden autumn in California, will be without her big-race partner Oisin Murphy. The reigning champion jockey in Britain was suspended from race-riding for 14 months on Tuesday following a BHA Judicial Panel hearing into various offences pertaining to failed breath tests and Covid protocol breaches.

Ah, racing. You're hard to love sometimes. But whatever slings and arrows are thrust upon the sport by a minority of the humans involved, there are at least those four-legged wonders who remind us, happily, on a daily basis exactly why we fell for the game in the first place.

In Riyadh this week, no horse deserves a cape and a gold star more than the mighty Mishriff. They say, apparently, that 80 per cent of success is just showing up. Mishriff has shown up every year since the Saudi Cup was launched, running second to Full Flat (Speightstown) in the first Saudi Derby before his glorious hurrah, as much for locals as for Britain, in the big one last year. His success is clearly down to much more than simply being present, not least his owner's formidable boutique breeding operation which has been honed with panache though generations. But he's back again, and if looks and glowing good health are anything to go by, Mishriff will not surrender his crown easily, even from the widest draw of all.

As the tractors exited the dirt track on the dot of seven on Wednesday morning, it was only fitting that the poster boy for the Saudi Cup was out first and almost alone, followed at a respectful distance by his stable-mate Harrovian (GB) (Leroidesanimaux), who runs in the Neom Turf Cup. John Gosden is not in Riyadh, but his son Thady, arriving at the track by bicycle, has already proved his mettle in overseeing a major international runner when travelling with Mishriff during last year's lockdown. A month later, the younger Gosden's name was officially added to the licence as co-trainer.

Out even earlier than Mishriff were Jocelyn Targett–former creative director for the inaugural Saudi Cup–and John Hammond, former trainer, notably of Montjeu (Ire), one of the few horses who was even better looking than Mishriff. The two old pals are on something of a busman's holiday as owners of runners trained respectively by the up-and-coming French trainers Jerome Reynier and Edouard Monfort. Targett is in town to cheer on his homebred Saudi Derby runner Jacinda (GB) (Aclaim {Ire}), her background memorably described by him on Tuesday as “the story of a mare I shouldn't have bought, a yearling I couldn't sell and a claimer that no-one wanted to claim.” Look how far you can go with horses if you never stop believing. Targett never does.

Hammond meanwhile has a runner in the Neom Turf Cup, a mare he owns with Rebecca Philipps and who was selected by his son Oscar at the BBAG Yearling Sale some years ago for €14,000. Eudaimonia (Fr) (Vision d'Etat {FR}) has merrily skipped her way through plenty of dances in some pretty fancy halls since then, and the music plays on. 

French racing has not been immune to turbulent times of late, and Sealiway (Fr) (Galiway {GB}) has arrived in Saudi with a different trainer to the one who saddled him to win the G1 QIPCO British Champion S. last October. With both his former trainers Cedric and Frederic Rossi currently suspended, the 4-year-old now represents Francis Graffard's stable, and he has been exercising along with the Aga Khan's Ebaiyra (Distorted Humour), who was Alain de Royer Dupre's final Group 1 runner in Hong Kong before his retirement in December. She is another new recruit to Graffard's increasingly powerful string. Their compatriots Skazino (Fr) (Kendargent {FR}), another former Rossi incumbent now trained by Richard Chotard, and the Jean-Claude Rouget-trained Glycon (Fr) (Le Havre {Ire}) have been keeping them company and the quartet took the opportunity for a little paddock schooling after cantering on the main track on Wednesday morning. 

Wandering past them as they circled the parade ring, head in the air but ears firmly pricked, was one of the most likeable mares of recent racing seasons, Princess Zoe (Ger) (Jukebox Jury {Ire}). We hear plenty about Willie Mullins at this time of year, usually in relation to Cheltenham, though the over-achiever also sent True Self (Ire) (Oscar {Ire}) to score at last year's Saudi Cup meeting with another formidable female, Hollie Doyle, in the Neom Turf Cup. But Willie's brother Tony has received deserved plaudits for his handling of the super staying mare Princess Zoe, now seven, who is another to have taken her happy team of connections on many memorable days out having been racing off a mark of 64 less than two years ago. Her next challenge is back in tandem with her young jockey Joey Sheridan for the $2.5 million Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap.

Regally named she may be, but Princess Zoe's determined climb to the top is just one reminder here in Riyadh that in the sport of kings, at the world's richest meeting laid on by a prince, even those from slightly humbler origins can have an important part to play in the greatest game of all. 

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