Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Modesti: National Treasure leads California hopes in Saudi Cup horse race

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The best thing happening in Southern California horse racing this weekend might be happening in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Cup, the richest thoroughbred race in the world with a purse of $20 million, will be contested for the fifth time Saturday at about 9:40 a.m. Pacific time when 14 horses run 1-1/8 miles around one turn on the dirt track at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh.

The field of 4-year-olds and up comes from the United States, Japan and Arab countries. It’s led by White Abarrio, the U.S. 5-year-old who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last November at Santa Anita. And it has a lot to interest California fans at a time when the state’s horses are trying to reassert themselves on the world stage.

Start with National Treasure, to be ridden by Santa Anita co-leader Flavien Prat for trainer Bob Baffert.

National Treasure is listed as the 8-1 fourth choice by the Racing Post – behind White Abarrio (3-1) and Japan’s Lemon Pop (5-1) and Derma Sotogake (6-1) – and has the credentials to win.

National Treasure has been keeping California horses in the headlines in the past year. His front-running victory in the Preakness last May gave the state’s trainers their only success in Triple Crown races in the two seasons since Churchill Downs barred Baffert from the Derby. National Treasure’s photo finish second to Horse of the Year Cody’s Wish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita was the closest any hometown horse came to winning one of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races last fall.

His victory in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in January suggested a 4-year-old colt hitting his stride.

“He’s got better and better, he’s beginning to put races together,” Jimmy Barnes, assistant trainer to Baffert, said in Riyadh after National Treasure drew post No. 7 this week. “He’s really matured and loves it here.”

One question is how National Treasure, preferring to race on or close to the lead, will fare in a field whose other early-speed horses include U.S.-based Saudi Crown (14-1) and Hoist the Gold (40-1).

“Flavien Prat will give him a good trip,” Barnes said, “and that’s all you can ask for.”

That, and you could ask for Baffert’s horse in the Saudi Cup to find a little extra this time after three straight close second-place finishes for the Hall of Fame trainer: Charlatan and Mike Smith were beaten by 8-1 winner Mishriff in 2021, Country Grammer and Prat were caught by 50-1 Emblem Road in 2022, and Country Grammer and Frankie Dettori couldn’t quite catch 16-1 Panthalaasa in 2023.

National Treasure and White Abarrio aren’t the only Saudi Cup runners familiar to Californians.

Senor Buscador (16-1), second in the Pegasus World Cup, is a stretch-running 6-year-old whose first big win was the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar last summer. Hoist the Gold, fourth in the Pegasus, has run at Del Mar and Santa Anita without winning. Two of the Saudi-based horses competing Saturday raced for Baffert before going overseas: Defunded (25-1) won the 2022 Awesome Again and 2023 Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita, and Carmel Road (25-1) broke his maiden at Del Mar and finishing second (to Practical Move) in the 2022 Los Alamitos Futurity.

A purse paying $10 million to the winner, $3.5 million to the runner-up, $2 million for third place – down to $200,000 for 10th – makes the trip to Saudi Arabia potentially lucrative for owners, trainers and jockeys.

The race itself should make the trip to our TV sets or wagering accounts worthwhile for fans.

REMEMBERING ART WILSON

A memorial service has been scheduled for Art Wilson, the longtime Southern California News Group racing writer who died Sunday at age 71.

The service will be held Wednesday, March 27, at 11 a.m., at Oakdale Memorial Chapel, 1401 South Grand Ave. in Glendora, Art’s brother, Eddie Wilson, said.

Art’s survivors include Eddie and their sister Deborah Wills.

“The family has been comforted with the outpouring of support and love shown by those who knew him,” Eddie said.

HELLO AGAIN

Allow me to reintroduce myself. I’m the man who will try to fill Art Wilson’s shoes on the racing beat.

It’s an honor to have been invited to return to the beat, as a freelance correspondent, to write weekly horse racing columns, report on major Southern California races and related news, and continue Art’s and this newspaper’s commitment to covering the sport.

Some will remember that I covered racing for the Daily News and other SCNG papers, full- or part-time, from 1991 to the early 2010s. It remains a favorite time in my career as a sports, news and editorial writer and editor.

Please send your suggestions about racing coverage. I’m @KevinModesti on X (formerly Twitter). Direct messages are open.

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