Dubai: Bob Baffert has a long list of big races he has conquered in America and the Middle East but the most valuable one, The Saudi Cup, has eluded him, including a pair of runner-up finishes and in the most frustrating of fashions.
This year, he brings Zedan Racing’s three-time Grade 1 winner Taiba (USA), as well as 2022 runner-up and Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer (USA) in the $20 million race on Saturday.
Taiba enters off a one-sided victory in the Malibu Stakes on December 26, the same Grade 1 Baffert’s 2021 runner-up Charlatan won in preparation for his Saudi Arabian sojourn. Last year, he won the Santa Anita Derby and Pennsylvania Derby — both Grade 1s — over The Saudi Cup’s 1800-metre distance.
Turning the lights on
“He just has so much quality,” Baffert said. “He will do what you want with him — he can go forward or come from off the pace — I don’t worry about him. He’ll fool you, because he’s such a lazy work horse in the mornings and is so laid-back, but when he gets in that gate and the lights turn on — that’s when his light turns on,” the American trainer told thesaudicup.com
Earlier on the Boxing Day card at Santa Anita, Country Grammer returned to the winners’ enclosure impressively in the Grade 2 San Antonio. Thus far, he is two-for-two with jockey Frankie Dettori in the saddle.
“I think both horses are doing really well and Jimmy [Barnes, assistant] is really happy with how they look there. Country Grammer is a horse who always runs his race. Frankie knows him really well and if the horse shows up, he’ll get the job done if Taiba doesn’t. This horse has never been better — he’s a better horse this year, I think — and he likes this track, which is really key.
“The Saudi Cup is one of the toughest races to win,” Baffert continued. “I’ve never won it and I really want to. It’s a long ship and a different surface and you have to keep them at their best the entire time.
“It’s a challenge and that’s what I love,” he concluded.
Dettori, who is on a farewell tour, has garnered huge attention and the Italian jockey looked suitably bronzed and fresh having flown in from California, where he has ridden 19 winners since commencing his stint at Santa Anita at Christmas.
Dettori, after taking part in the International Jockeys Challenge, takes the reins on four strong chances on Saturday — Havnameltdown (USA) in the Saudi Derby, Elite Power (USA) in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint, Trawlerman (IRE) in the Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap and Country Grammer (USA) in the $20 million Saudi Cup.
“It has been overwhelming. I did not expect to do so well,” he said on his current form in Los Angeles.
“There are some great riders at Santa Anita, but I am really enjoying it and I am getting lots of support from a variety of trainers, so it’s going well.”
Dettori is better placed than most to appraise the growth of racing in Saudi Arabia and was glowing in his assessment of its progress in recent times.
“I have been coming here for 30 years so I am part of the furniture and I know most of the trainers,” he said. “Back in the day, we used to race in the track in the city centre. This track is here about 15 or 20 years and it’s not the first time I have said it, but it’s the best dirt track I have ever ridden.”
Looking forward to Country Grammer in the climax to the weekend, Dettori added: “He’s very solid, he never runs a bad race. He was second last year and he is very experienced. I would be foolish to say I am confident, but he has a very solid chance. He skipped the Breeders’ Cup Classic so this race and Dubai have always been the aim and he felt as good as ever when he won the San Antonio Stakes in December.”
Reflecting on his decision to retire at the end of the year, Dettori is determined to bow out at the top and the elongated departure befits his status as the most internationally recognisable figure in the sport.
“I have given myself a year to do my last farewell. I went to Santa Anita because I was asked to go instead of spending winter in Dubai. Then I move onto the European programme and Royal Ascot should be my last one. Then the Breeders’ Cup should be my last meeting,” he said.
“I don’t know, maybe the Melbourne Cup could materialise, but basically this year will be my last. I will be 53 in December and hopefully I will finish at the top.”
Yuichi Fukunaga, one of Japan’s premier jockeys, will also be making a final farewell from the saddle when he competes at King Abdulaziz Racecourse on Saturday.
The 46-year-old had his final rides on the JRA circuits at Tokyo Racecourse on February 19 after a long career following in the footsteps of his father Yoichi, regarded as a genius of a rider.
New role as a trainer
On Saudi Cup Day, Fukunaga has been booked to ride four-year-old colt Remake (JPN) in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint and Ecoro Ares (USA) in The Saudi Derby.
The veteran pilot will turn his attention to being a trainer from next month.
“It was just I have found other things I really want to do as my job,” he explained. “I never felt I did not like being a jockey. The attraction of becoming a trainer outweighed the motivation to continue my riding career because I have had enough as a jockey. As a trainer, I can be more deeply involved with horses.”
Fukunaga will retire with a spectacular list of achievements. As an established rider, he has collected 45 Grade 1 wins which include 34 at JRA, six at NAR (National Association of Racing) level and five overseas.