Saudi Cup Handicapping: Charlatan-Knicks Go-All Trifecta
By Ed McNamara
Cigar. Silver Charm. Dubai Millennium. Invasor. Curlin. Animal Kingdom. California Chrome. Arrogate. All of them won the Dubai World Cup, once the world’s richest race. Last year, the $20 million Saudi Cup grabbed that distinction, and its 1-2 finishers were superstars Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou.
The handicapping lesson: When outstanding dirt horses travel halfway around the world, betting against them isn’t wise.
Unlike in the Breeders’ Cup, double-digit winners are scarce. History has taught us that fishing for longshots in the megabucks events of the Middle East is usually an exercise in futility.
That’s how I’m looking at Saturday’s Saudi Cup, and I’ll be stunned if the winning exacta doesn’t include both favorites, Charlatan and Knicks Go. But whoever manages to finish third will have a career moment, because show money is $2 million.
Unless you’re playing two straight trifectas — Charlatan-Knicks Go-all and Knicks Go-Charlatan-all, what happens behind the top two shouldn’t matter much. I can’t get past them, and it would be remarkable if any of their 12 overmatched challengers does.
Baffert knows what it takes to win on international stage
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert trained three Dubai World Cup winners, so he knows exactly what it takes to send a horse on a 19-hour flight and keep it in top form. He’s high on 4-year-old Charlatan, who finished first in all four of his career starts. [He was disqualified from the Arkansas Derby because of a drug violation.]
“I think his talent makes up for his inexperience,” Baffert said. “It’s the perfect distance for him. He doesn’t know how to lose, and that’s a good trait. The thing I like about the Saudi race is that it’s a one-turn mile and an eighth and Charlatan is so fast.”
Brad Cox recently won his first Eclipse Award for leading trainer, and front-running Knicks Go was among the nation’s top older horses. In his first attempt at a mile and an eighth, the 5-year-old dominated the Pegasus
World Cup last month at Gulfstream. But that was around two turns, so the pace dynamics of the Saudi Cup will be different.
“It will be a good matchup between those two,” Cox said. “Charlatan is a very good horse, obviously lightly raced, but he’s got crazy good numbers. He’s a freak talent, but he does lack some experience.”
Watch for Knicks Go to take off and try and wire the field
Knicks Go led throughout the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the Pegasus, so expect Joel Rosario to try to wire the Saudi Cup. That’s fine with Baffert, who wouldn’t mind if Mike Smith stalks and pounces entering the stretch. That’s what Charlatan did in his last race, the Grade 1, 7-furlong Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita, in which he sat off the brilliant sprinter Nashville before blowing him away.
A two-turn route lets a frontrunner get a breather on each turn, while going 9 furlongs around one turn forces the leader to run hard all the way. Baffert is hopeful that will give him the winning edge. Cox admits his superstar has something to prove.
“Our horse does have to make the adjustment back to one turn, and we don’t know how he will handle that,” Cox said. “It’s hard for me to say if a one-turn mile and an eighth will suit him.
“I do like that he handled not having Lasix [in the Pegasus] just fine, which is a positive thing we have going for us,’’ Cox added. “He’s in great form and he has a lot of class.” [The Saudi Cup does not allow Lasix or any other drug.]
Charlatan never has raced without Lasix. Cox never has sent a horse to the Middle East. Which will matter more? My guess is that neither situation will be a major factor.
As for the draw, give a slight advantage to Charlatan (the 7-5 favorite with BUSR.com in post 9, four slots outside of Knicks Go (5-2 second choice). Barring gate or traffic problems, Smith will be able to track Knicks Go.
Neither side had any complaints about the post positions.
Assistant trainer Dustin Dugas said: “We like it, five is right in the middle, he’s a speed horse. Joel will have a lot of ground to work with before he gets to the turn.”
Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant, said: “Bob said six, seven, eight or nine would be perfect.”
Charlatan is making only his second start since May after missing seven months with an ankle issue. He didn’t have to exert himself much in the Malibu, so there should be a lot left in the tank.
“Bob is really good off the layoff,” Barnes said. “Our horses are usually fit and ready. We look forward to him moving forward off that race — absolutely.”
So do I.
The Saudi Cup picks:
1. Charlatan 2. Knicks Go 3. Tacitus 4. Sleepy Eyes Todd