On a day when the well-fancied Americans thrice played bridesmaid and Japan celebrated twice, the Saudi Cup stayed home thanks to the efforts of a British trainer and a 21-year-old, ginger-haired Irish jockey.
Perhaps the weather had a hand, too, as Mishriff, racing for Saudi Arabia’s Prince Faisal, wore down heavily favored Charlatan in the closing yards of the $20 million Saudi Cup Feb. 20, winning by one length.
The winning team, befitting the international aspirations of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, was fittingly cosmopolitan — John Gosden, trainer in Newmarket; David Egan, jockey raised at The Curragh in Ireland.
The weather at King Abdulaziz Racetrack was a bit foreign as well with chilly temperatures and a rare bit of rain in the hours leading up to the big race. That might have helped Mishriff feel right at home as Godsen had conditioned him up to the race at Newmarket, amid serious winter weather.
“We were in quite deep snow, so maybe that’s the secret,” Gosden said with a chuckle in a remote post-race interview from a cozy spot back home in England.
Whatever role the conditions might have played, Mishriff was ready for the task at hand. He was second a year ago in the Samba Saudi Derby, but only 2 1/4 lengths adrift of the Japanese winner Full Flat after a terrible start. He went on from that to win three straight races in Europe, notably the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) at Chantilly.
He had not raced since a disappointing finish over soft turf at Ascot in the Group 1 QIPCO Champion Stakes in October.
The Saudi Cup went essentially to script with the top two American contenders well in front of the field down the backstretch and into the turn. If there was any surprise to that, it was that Mike Smith took Runhappy Malibu Stakes winner Charlatan to the lead with Knicks Go, seeking his fifth straight win, in close attendance.
Mishriff, meantime, got away cleanly from an outside gate and took up position in front of the others.
By midstretch, it was clear Knicks Go could go no longer but Charlatan was grinding on for jockey Mike Smith with Egan urging Mishriff to his outside. They fought to the final yards before Mishriff edged clear to win by a length. Locally-owned Great Scot was third.
The rest of the American contingent wasn’t disgraced, although Knicks Go’s fading fourth was a disappointment to his Korean ownership and Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. Sleepy Eyes Todd was fifth and Tacitus reported seventh in the field of 14.
“He jumped very well, probably the best he’s ever jumped,” Egan said of Mishriff. “I squeezed him along for the first 50 yards and I was actually surprised how well he was going. I was on Mike Smith’s [Charlatan’s] heels and he was really taking me into it.
“Around the crest of the bend, when we started turning, was the only kind of worrying time. When they started quickening, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get him back rolling again. But once we got going into the straight, I always knew I was going to mow them down.”
Smith said he was concerned during the course of the evening that speed — Charlatan’s weapon of choice — wasn’t holding.
“He’s just so lightly raced this year and the way the racetrack was playing all day, I got a little concerned because speed wasn’t holding all day long,” said Smith, who now has finished second in both Saudi Cups. “He’s only ran once [since returning from nearly an eight-month layoff] and it was a seven-eighths race. He got really tired. If he’d had two races, I think he’d win.”
Trainer Bob Baffert, who watched Charlatan from California, said he was “very proud” of his race.
“Turning for home, we knew they were going pretty fast early,” Baffert said. “He’s a fast horse, but that [long] stretch — I’m glad we don’t have any stretches like that in America.”
For the small crowd on hand, the long stretch led to a joyous homecoming.
Egan said after Mishriff’s effort last season, “I’m sure it was all under discussion” to come back. “Look, when you’ve had such a great season last year in Europe and Prince Faisal’s backyard is just down the road, it’s a no-brainer.”
Gosden, hooked in by Zoom from Newmarket, agreed Prince Faisal had been eager to come back for the Saudi Cup and said his horse truly earned his right to compete anywhere.
“Anytime you take on Bob Baffert with a horse of that class, you’re pleased if he can get there,” Gosden said.
Charlatan, making just his fourth career start, was beaten to the finish line for the first time although he was disqualified from victory in his division of last year’s Arkansas Derby. His runner-up showing followed similar fates on the day for Cowan in the $1.5 million Al Rahji Bank Saudi Derby and Channel Maker in the $1 million Neom Turf Cup.