No luck of the Irish when it comes to post position for raiders at lucrative Saudi Cup programme

Matilda Picotte and Luxembourg given outside draws around Riyadh tight circuit

There has been little luck of the Irish when it comes to post position for Saturday’s $37 million (€34 million) Saudi Cup extravaganza in Riyadh.

There’s no Irish representation in the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup on dirt, but both Aidan O’Brien and Co Laois trainer Kieran Cotter have been left pondering how far it is to travel to the Middle East only to end up in a car park.

Cotter’s stable star Matilda Picotte must overcome being hung out widest of all in stall 14 for the $2 million Turf Sprint run at 3.25pm Irish-time (live on Racing TV).

In the following $2 million Neom Turf Cup, also a Group Two contest, off at 4.10pm, O’Brien’s middle-distance star Luxembourg breaks from box 13 of the 13 runners.


O’Brien’s other starter on the hugely lucrative programme run at the King Abdulaziz racecourse outside the Saudi capital fared only marginally better.

Tower Of London’s target is the even more valuable $2.5 million Red Sea Handicap (4.50pm) for which he is in stall 12 of the 14 runners.

As in the US, the nine-furlong turf circuit is on the inside of the dirt course and its tight bends are unforgiving to those forced to take a wide route.

Ryan Moore has the job of navigating a path for both Ballydoyle contenders while Oisín Murphy will try to maintain his 100 per cent record on Matilda Picotte.

The Kerry rider landed last year’s Sceptre Stakes on her at Doncaster before adding to that with a Group Two success in Newmarket’s Challenge Stakes.

The Rowley Mile could hardly be more different from the task in front of the unlikely Irish success story whose form also includes a third in last year’s 1000 Guineas.

Matilda Picotte’s syndicate ownership includes a sizeable representation from west Cork who will be cheering on Murphy.

“Matilda Picotte has a lot of speed and was brilliant last year. Her form in the autumn went up to another level and I think the distance is probably ideal — just under seven furlongs,” said the former British champion jockey.

“She’s got so much natural speed and although it is a different type of track maybe to where her best performances have come — Doncaster and Newmarket — she has plenty of racing experience now,” he added.

Cotter downplayed the post position — “she got drawn 14 but she will give it 100 per cent” — and pointed to his satisfaction with how Matilda Picotte had coped with international travel.

The filly has been a star performer for the trainer who less than a couple of years ago was under a less positive spotlight when getting fines totalling €27,500 by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.

That was on the back of a stable inspection of his premises in 2021 following a positive test for the prohibited substance cobalt from a winner he saddled in Dundalk.

Medication headlines have dogged the Saudi Cup from the start after Maximum Security won its first running in 2020. His disgraced trainer Jason Servis was given a four-year prison sentence last summer after an FBI investigation into horse doping.

Four years later and Saudi racing authorities still hope to disqualify Maximum Security, now a stallion at Coolmore’s US branch, after carrying out an investigation of their own.

The favourite for the feature event off at 5.40pm is the Breeders Cup Classic winner White Abarrio whose trainer Rick Dutrow returned last year from a decade-long suspension for offences that included doping breaches.

Another big US hope is National Treasure, handled by Bob Baffert who is still suspended from competing in the Kentucky Derby on the back of a failed dope test by his ill-fated 2021 winner Medina Spirit. Baffert has been runner-up three times in the Saudi Cup.

Luxembourg had originally been in the mix to take on the dirt test — live on Virgin Media Two — but O’Brien ultimately opted to postpone any switch of discipline.

“We were in two minds about it. The Saudi Cup is probably the most exciting race in the world. We were going to go there and take our chance, but then last minute we thought it was the wrong thing for the horse this early in the season,” said O’Brien.

“It’s the race everyone wants to win and we nearly did it. Maybe we thought it might be safer to do it the other way and maybe we could go there with him next year.

“We will experiment. Maybe we should have done it this time but we definitely will. He could go to Dubai and it’s very possible he’ll go there on the grass as well. Then we might think about switching over for the second half of the year, something like that,” he added.

Although there is no local betting, layers here rate Luxembourg as a general evens favourite to add Saudi Arabia to O’Brien’s bulging international CV.

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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column