In an era when timing and spacing are the preferred words and horses only run a handful of times a year, it generally takes some extraordinary circumstances to set up a dazzling showdown.
Clearly $20 million falls into the category of an extraordinary circumstance.
With a huge treasure chest of cash as the lure for traveling halfway around the world, the Feb. 20 second edition of the $20 million Saudi Cup will be the setting for a get-your-popcorn-ready match up when Knicks Go and Charlatan will square off in an electrifying speed duel at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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"If you put up $20 million, it will bring the best horses out. You have two of the best older horses in training facing each other and, if you're going to go up against a horse like [Knicks Go], you want to do it for $20 million. That's what the Saudi Cup organizers want to see," said Bob Baffert, who trains Charlatan. "It's worth the travel ... if you run well."
A international field of 14 was entered Feb. 17 in the 1 1/8-mile one-turn test headed by the two speedy Grade 1-winning American rivals who figure to be embroiled in a fierce yet entertaining duel on the front end from the outset.
Knicks Go drew post 5 at Wednesday's draw, while Charlatan will break outside of him from post 9.
"That's just about perfect for him," said assistant trainer Jim Barnes, who will saddle Charlatan in Baffert's absence, via the Saudi Cup Twitter account.
Knicks Go, owned by the Korea Racing Authority and trained by Brad Cox, enters the world's richest race off a victory in one of the United States' richest races. The 5-year-old is exiting a decisive, gate-to-wire, 2 3/4-length victory in the $2.9 million Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes at Gulfstream Park that earned him an automatic spot in the Saudi Cup and extended an incredible renaissance.
Winless for more than 16 months until he was moved to Cox's barn, the Pegasus was the fourth straight win for the Maryland-bred son of Paynter and came on the heels of a front-running score in the Grade 1 Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Should the gray horse bred by Angie Moore add the Saudi Cup to his winning streak it would put Knicks Go in the elite company of Arrogate as a star who reeled off consecutive wins at the Breeders' Cup, Pegasus, and a rich international stakes in the Middle East.
"If he can win the Saudi Cup and keep on going, you are talking about a four- or five-race span like you've never seen before," Cox said. "When he won the Breeders' Cup and ran as fast as he did, and then when he won the Pegasus, it was like, wow. His first two races for us were nice races [in allowance company], but when you step up into Grade 1 races and run away from everyone, that takes it to a whole different level. I'm very fortunate to have him."
After racing only three times in 2020, Knicks Go heads into the Saudi Cup with four weeks rest and a long international flight in the books, but Cox has been thrilled with the multiple-grade 1 winner's training for Saturday's race.
"Everything is going real good. He breezed over the track Monday and appears to be coming up to the race as good as he was before the Pegasus," Cox said about the $87,000 purchase from the Woods Edge Farm consignment at the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale who has earned $3,088,995.
In the Pegasus, Knicks Go enjoyed a clear, 1 1/2-length lead after the opening half-mile, but that's unlikely to happen in the Saudi Cup with Charlatan in the field.
The 4-year-old Charlatan, whose lone loss in four career starts came in a laboratory when a positive drug test led to his disqualification from a victory in a division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, has an equally brilliant turn of early speed. After a layoff of nearly eight months, the son of Speightstown stalked the front-running Nashville through a blazing half-mile in :43.95 in the seven furlong Dec. 26 Grade 1 Runhappy Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita Park and then pulled away in the stretch to win convincingly by 4 1/2 lengths.
With speed like that, there's no great mystery in what to expect once the starting gates open in the Saudi Cup.
"We'll bring some excitement with the speed and everybody will be watching that," Baffert said. "Knicks Go has one way to go, Charlatan has one way to go, and we'll take it from there."
"There's always a concern when you have a speed horse and there's another speed horse in there," Cox said. "You wonder how it will work out, but Joel knows the horse, and he's a very good front end rider. We'll see how it plays out."
Charlatan, bred by Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings out of the Quiet American mare Authenticity, was purchased for $700,000 from the Denali Stud consignment at the 2018 Keeneland September sale. He has already secured a stallion deal from Hill 'n' Dale for the ownership group of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Stonestreet Stables, Fred Hertrich III, John Fielding, and Golconda Stables, and can add to that jackpot with a victory Saturday that will be worth $10 million or about $91,000 for each second of the race.
"It's a lot of money, especially with purses being down here [in the United States] due to the pandemic," said Sol Kumin of Madaket Stables, who also owns a share of $1.5 million Saudi Derby starter Cowan. "When you get a chance to run for a purse like this, you have to take it. Brad's horse is very talented and Charlatan will have to be on his 'A' game, but our horse is training really well. He's coming into the race off really good spacing, the distance suits him, and Bob has experience shipping there [Baffert was fourth with Pegasus winner Mucho Gusto in last year's race] and that makes you feel good. I'm excited."
Kumin said drawing a post outside of Knicks Go should help Charlatan's cause.
"You want to be outside a horse like Knicks Go," he said.
The U.S. contingent also includes Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus (post 7), who was fifth in the 2020 Saudi Cup; Thumbs Up Racing's Sleepy Eyes Todd (post 8), who was fourth in the Pegasus; and George Hall and SportBLX Thoroughbreds' multiple Grade 1-placed stakes winner Max Player (post 4). All three will be hoping for a pace meltdown.
Among the top international starters are Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club winner Mishriff (post 12), who was second in last year's Samba Saudi Derby Cup for trainer John Gosden, and Chuwa Wizard (post 1), Japan's Dirt Horse of the Year in 2020.