U.S. Quintet Tunes Up For Saudi Cup

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Channel Maker and Tacitus breeze together on Saudi's dirt track | Emma Berry

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—A number of trainers with horses engaged in Saturday's Saudi Cup have been unable to travel but their horses and exercise riders have shipped in, mostly over last weekend, for the second running of the $20 million contest at King Abdulaziz Racecourse.

The 14-strong field includes two locally-trained horses, Great Scot (GB) (Requinto {Ire}) and Alzahzaah (KSA) (Worldly), who face competition from Britain, Japan and Bahrain as well as five runners from the United States.

For most of the American contingent, stronger work had taken place on the dirt track during Monday morning, meaning a walk or jog at the quarantine barn was the order of the day as a small gathering of international media and connections arrived trackside Tuesday. 

There would be perhaps no more poignant winner of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's biggest race than Tacitus (Tapit), bred and owned by the late Prince Khalid Abdullah, a member of the country's royal family and greatly admired in the wider family that is the international racing community. 

The 5-year-old has rarely been far from the heat of the battle in his 15 starts. His sole finish outside the top four has been when fifth in this race last year. And if prizes were dished out on the racecourse for manners and beauty, then the stallion would rarely be headed. 

While his fellow greys and Saturday rivals Knicks Go (Paynter) and Sleepy Eyes Todd (Paddy O'Prado) walked the barn, the eye-catching Tacitus paraded out onto the main track Tuesday morning in company with stable-mate Channel Maker (English Channel) to take up his customary observation post on the outside of the far bend. Admittedly, Tacitus, unlike his European counterparts, is accustomed to being trained at the track so the morning's activities in relatively quiet Riyadh will be nothing like the hullabaloo he might face at Saratoga. Nevertheless, his near-inanimate stance for a good five minutes each morning in the company of trainer Bill Mott's assistant Neil Poznansky is quite something to behold. 

Once asked to move off and complete his morning's exercise, Tacitus pleased his rider in a three-furlong breeze on the widely-praised dirt track. 

“I thought today's breeze was quite exceptional,” said Poznansky. “He continues to mature all the time and he is mentally more focused. He's really coming into himself.”

Tacitus and Poznansky completed their exercise alongside Channel Maker and Umberto Gomez. The 7-year-old, who was voted last season's Eclipse Champion Turf Horse, is set to line up for one of the key races on Saturday's undercard, the 2,100-metre Neom Turf Cup. Tacitus and Channel Maker will be given an easy Wednesday and will be kept to walking before returning to stronger exercise on the track Thursday. 

Few horses have arrived in Riyadh with more rip-roaring form that Knicks Go, who added last month's Pegasus World Cup Invitational S. to his unbeaten 2020 season, which culminated in victory in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

The 5-year-old, who also adds another international element to proceedings as a color-bearer for the Korea Racing Authority, had an easy day following a 48-second four-furlong breeze to blow out the Monday morning cobwebs.

His rider and Brad Cox's assistant trainer Dustin Dugas said he was happy with the horse following that spin. “He jogged up the road really well this morning and is acting like he should,” Dugas reported. “The breeze seems to have woken him up since being here and his coat looks great.”

Cox added via telephone that he was, understandably, hoping for Knicks Go's progressive form to continue. He said, “We've had him a while now and he's really always trained with a lot of energy and has been aggressive. I don't know if I'm looking to see him progress as much as I am just looking for more of the same—he's been that good.”

Bob Baffert rarely misses a big international meeting with a runner but he has not accompanied the lightly-raced Charlatan (Speightstown), who atoned for his subsequent disqualification from the Arkansas Derby with a comeback win almost eight months later in the GI Runhappy Malibu S. The 4-year-old, who has finished first past the post in all four starts to date, heads for a jog Wednesday before returning to the main track on Thursday morning. He is reported to be in good order by Baffert's assistant Jimmy Barnes, who is in Riyadh with the colt.

The trio of American greys in town for the big race is completed by Sleepy Eyes Todd, whose trainer Miguel Angel Silva has travelled with him.

“Yesterday [Monday] the horse galloped one lap and then did a two-minute mile on the dirt track,” said the trainer. “He nearly did three miles on the track on his own ridden by my assistant, José. Today he took the day off. He is in good form, he ate all of his dinner and everything is ok right now.”

Thumbs Up Racing's 5-year-old has a bit to find with Knicks Go, having finished more than nine lengths adrift of him when fourth in the Pegasus World Cup off the back of victory in the GIII Mr Prospector S. just before Christmas.

American-trained runners filled four of the first five places in the inaugural Saudi Cup and Steve Asmussen will be hoping to go one better than his runner-up finish last year with Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute). This time the trainer fields Max Player (Honor Code), who joined his stable last August and subsequently ran fifth in both the belated Kentucky Derby and Preakness S.

Communicating via a text message from the United States, Asmussen indicated that he was happy with how Max Player had taken the long journey to Saudi Arabia.

“Anxiously awaiting the post position draw,” said the trainer, who also runs GII Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint runner-up Cowan (Kantharos) in the $1.5 million Al Rajhi Bank Saudi Derby over a mile.

The draw takes place in Riyadh on Wednesday evening. 

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