The newly minted Saudi Cup 2020 will become the world’s richest horse race on Saturday when it divvies up an astounding $20 million purse.
It’s a must-watch event for fans around the globe. But as a betting opportunity, the first running of what the Saudi government hopes will become an annual highlight of the winter racing calendar is hard to embrace.
It’s not that the Saudis haven’t pulled out all the stops to make the one-turn 1800-meter race (about 1 1/8th mile) at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in the capital of Riyadh a success. In addition to the main event, the undercard features seven races with total purses of $9.2 million, for an overall payout just shy of $30 million.
That attracted top-class horses from around the world, immediately propelling the venture from ambitious undertaking to force to be reckoned with.
And the facility itself appears to be fit for a king — or a sheik if you prefer.
The problem is that since this is the first time top-flight international competitors have descended on the track at this time of year to do battle in the desert, handicappers are left with many questions that can’t be answered without consulting a crystal ball.
Let’s start out with what we do know, before we get to the imponderables.
The five U.S.-based horses – Maximum Security, McKinzie, Midnight Bisou, Mucho Gusto and Tacitus – in the 14-horse field all figure to be well backed. So if finding value is your game, you’re not likely to discover it here.
Of the U.S.-based runners, Maximum Security, who has crossed the finish line first in all but one of his nine lifetime starts (including the 2019 Kentucky Derby before being disqualified), figures to be a solid favorite, likely in the 8-5 range. The Bob Baffert-trained duo of hard-trying McKinzie and Mucho Gusto, winner of the $3 million Pegasus World Cup in his last start, and the Eclipse Award winning mare Midnight Bisou also should attract their fair share of backers.
Tacitus, winless in five starts since his victory in the Wood Memorial Stakes in April of last year, looks like the one U.S. runner who could drift up to a better price, but many are starting to question his will to win after so many near misses.
The big questions begin with international shipping, as none of the quintet have ever done so before. While they’ve all had time to recuperate from their long flights and get familiar with the track, you never know whose sleep clock might have been knocked out of whack.
Then there’s the racing surface.
King Abdulaziz track superintendent Bob Turman told the Daily Racing Form this week that the main track is slow and soft. Turman, who used to groom tracks in Northern California, said the higher content of fine sand and deep 3 ½-inch cushion are more conducive to closers than your typical U.S. track – an important difference that likely will be underappreciated by the bettors.
Throw in the warm weather (a high of 88 is forecast for Saturday), a strange one-turn layout that could confuse runners used to turning left twice and all the other things that can go wrong in any race and you’ve got a pretty long list of reasons to sit this one out and take notes instead.
I’m not saying don’t bet the race. If you think you see a standout who offers fair value, by all means back your opinion at the windows.
I’m saying I find it difficult to persuade myself that I’ve got any sort of edge here.
There are two situations I can think of that might persuade me otherwise:
- If one of the U.S. runners drifts up to a range that makes him or her enticing, I could make a relatively small win bet and possibly hook that runner up with the favorites in an exacta or trifecta.
- I’ll also be checking overseas odds as the race draws closer to see if any of the runners based in the Middle East are taking significant action in Europe or elsewhere.
Most horseplayers will likely disregard what they consider the hopelessly outclassed runners who have raced recently in Saudi Arabia, but I think there’s a good reason to take a close look at the locals.
Since this is the Year 1 in the history of the Saudi Cup, I turned to the closest race I could think of – the Dubai World Cup (March 28), which will be run next month for the 25th time. The conditions of the races vary, but the overall circumstances facing shippers may not be so different.
In the 24 prior runnings, American-based horses have won the race 12 times. European runners have not fared well, likely because their annual rhythms aren’t set to high-level competition in the winter, wining only once. One Japanese runner also has posed for a photo after the race.
None of that is news, but what is surprising is that runners who had last raced in the United Arab Emirates, home of the Dubai World Cup, accounted for the other 10 victories.
If you apply that to the Saudi Cup, it suggests that Benbatl, a British-bred 6-year-old who won the Al Mahktoum Challenge in Dubai in his most recent start, is worth a look.
That could be something that you will need multiple wheelbarrows to take to the bank.
Where to watch Saudi Cup 2020 in the U.S.
Fox Sports 1 is televising the Saudi Cup from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Most U.S. racetracks and other pari-mutuel wagering facilities are expected to carry the race, as are advance deposit wagering sites that offer streaming video. But check with your provider before hand to make sure.
The online sports video site flosports.tv also will offer the race to subscribers.
Five quick things to know about the Saudi Cup
Wagering and odds
The Saudi Cup is unusual in that Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country, does not allow betting – at least not publicly – at the racetrack. But it’s perfectly fine for the signal to be distributed to countries where such activities are allowed, and for the takeout to find its way back to the Saudi treasury. For the same reason, the track does not create a morning line. What would be the point if no one was betting? That is done by the international intermediaries that distribute the race in their bailiwicks.
King Abdulaziz racetrack
The sprawling track is part of an equestrian complex that covers an area of 9 square kilometers (almost 3 ½ square miles). It is named after King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, the founder of Saudi Arabia.
How hot will it be?
Yes, Saudi Arabia lies in a desert, but at this time of year it’s not half bad as far as temperatures are concerned. The forecast for Saturday calls for hazy sunshine with a high of around 87 degrees Fahrenheit.
The richest race arms race
The current battle to be no. 1 in purse dates back to 1996, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates created the $4 million Dubai World Cup. The race reigned supreme for years, increasing its purse to $10 million in 2010-16. That was eclipsed in 2017 when North American racing magnate Frank Stronach offered a $12 million purse for the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park. Enter the Saudis in 2020 at $20 million.
The politics of horse racing
It’s no longer just about finding out who has the fastest horse. Participation in the Saudi Cup had drawn criticism in the U.S. and in other countries over the country’s tarnished human rights record and other concerns, with human rights organizations calling the practice “sportwashing.” The Los Angeles Times, for example, recently ran an opinion piece asserting that “the American (and European) horse racing industry implicitly endorses the Saudis’ charm offensive with their uncritical participation in the race.”