Connections on tenterhooks as Princess Zoe hunts massive prize in Saudi Arabia

Three Irish contenders among those vying for a near-two mile contest worth $2.5m

Princess Zoe’s connections will hope their decision to not send their star mare jumping this winter gets vindicated in style in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

If focusing on the flat so close to Cheltenham is near heresy to some, then the richest horse race in the world is hard to argue with in terms of priority this weekend.

The third renewal of the $20 million Saudi Cup at the King Abdulaziz racetrack near Riyadh once again is accompanied by wider turbulence.

Whether it has been the Covid-19 pandemic, accusations of the $31 million meeting being used as ‘sports-washing’ for the Saudi government, or the doping fallout from Maximum Security’s 2020 success, controversy has never been far away from the event.


The wider backdrop this time is war in Europe although the on-track spotlight is likely to be on Bob Baffert.

US racing’s top trainer is currently planning an appeal against the fines and suspensions imposed on him this week after the disqualification of last year’s ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit.

Baffert may be suspended from racing at Churchill Downs but will bid to win the most valuable race on the planet with Country Grammer in a race off at 5.35 Irish-time and shown live on Virgin Media 2.

Last year’s Hollywood Gold Cup winner even carries the Medina Spirit colours and one of his 13 opponents is Mandaloun, the horse promoted to first in the Derby.

Last year’s winner Mishriff is back to defend the Saudi Cup title – which carries Group One status for the first time – but has to overcome being drawn on the outside of a field that also includes France’s Sealiway.

Runners from Japan and Argentina add to an international element in the earlier Group Three handicap which features three Irish hopes and is off at 2.05.

The trio of Princess Zoe, Johnny Murtagh’s Irish Leger hero Sonnyboyliston, as well as Baron Samedi from Joseph O’Brien’s team, are among the favourites for a near-two mile contest worth a massive $2.5 million.

Switching codes

Having shelved the idea of switching codes and targeting Cheltenham with Princess Zoe, Tony Mullins is hopeful his 2020 Prix Du Cadran winner can secure a pay off far more lucrative than anything in the Cotswolds.

Other Irish interest in Riyadh will come in the $1.5 million Group Three Turf Sprint at 1.25 where Joseph O’Brien has booked Christophe Soumillon to ride his 2020 National Stakes winner Thunder Moon.

Back home some last minute tickets to Cheltenham could be booked at Naas on Sunday and plenty of interest is likely in Prengarde’s debut for new owner JP McManus in a handicap hurdle.

A five time Cross-Country winner in France, McManus’s purchase is rated Tiger Roll’s biggest threat at Cheltenham in just over two weeks time. New trainer Enda Bolger is keen to give him a prep race and perhaps exploit a mark of 127 over flights.

It is 13 years since Go Native landed the Grade Two Bet Victor Novices Hurdle prior to landing the Supreme at Cheltenham.

Ha D'or is a 50-1 outsider for the same festival race but won easily on his last start and a similar display could secure him a place on the Willie Mullins squad.

Captain Guinness holds a Champion Chase entry but first of all tackles three opponents in the opening Grade Three chase on Sunday.

He faces no easy task on figures and although Blackbow has been frustrating to follow, a small field and a drop back to two miles could prove the trick.

Only four line up for Saturday’s Tote Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse including the third and fourth in last year’s Grand National, Any Second Now and Burrow Saint.

Willie Mullins has won the Grade Three for the last half dozen years and his 2019 Irish National winner emerges best of these on official figures.

Burrow Saint’s stable companion Icare Allen looks the one to beat in the opening Winning Fair Hurdle, a race won last year by Teahupoo.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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