Magic Wand in the running to conjure Riyadh win
Coolmore Stud’s globetrotting mare flying Irish flag at inaugural $20m Saudi Cup
Jockey Ryan Moore on board Magic Wand. Photograph: Nigel French/PA Wire
The Aidan O’Brien-trained Magic Wand will fly the Irish flag in the world’s richest race when lining up in this Saturday’s inaugural $20 million (€18.4 million) Saudi Cup at the King Abdulaziz track in Riyadh.
It will be a first start on dirt for Coolmore Stud’s globetrotting mare, who in 2019 alone ran a dozen times in six countries in Europe, North America, Australasia and the Middle East.
Seven other Irish-trained horses, including three handled by O’Brien’s son Joseph and one from the yard of champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins, will take part in other races on the spectacular programme, which is worth a massive $29.2 million (€26.9 million) in all.
International racing’s newest attraction is the latest among a series of high-profile sporting events staged in Saudi Arabia in recent months.
They include the lucrative Saudi International golf tournament won by Northern Ireland’s Graham McDowell earlier this month, and December’s world heavyweight boxing match between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.
World number one golfer Rory McIlroy declined to take part in the Saudi International, citing “morality” as guiding his decision.
Human rights groups have accused the Saudi government of a “sportswashing” policy to try to improve its international image.
However, the Irishman who is the Saudi Jockey Club’s director of strategy and international racing has rejected any suggestion that the Saudi Cup is part of any such policy.
Tom Ryan was manager of Naas racecourse for over a dozen years and joined the Saudi Jockey last year. He said on Sunday: “I could be accused of being biased as I’m employed by these people.
It’s been nothing but positive, progressive and honest in terms of what they’re trying to achieve
“But one by one these guys who have come over, let them be British, Irish, American, let them be from anywhere outside here, they are starting to see the real genuine determination that some of the very senior people have to push forward and leave the past in the past.
“Whatever can be said about the rest of the sporting events, this one definitely doesn’t fall into that bracket.
“I’m certainly working for a bunch of people here who are directly in contact with MBS [Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman] and it’s been nothing but positive, progressive and honest in terms of what they’re trying to achieve.
“This country has had scenarios in the past they’re trying to move away from. But I’ve had only positive experiences since I’ve landed here.”
Political considerations haven’t prevented a massive international challenge forming for Saturday’s fixture,where US horses are expected to dominate the nine-furlong feature on dirt.
Last year’s disqualified Kentucky Derby “winner”, Maximum Security, is a general 11-4 favourite in ante-post betting lists ahead of another American star, McKinzie.
Godolphin’s Benbatl is a joint-7-1 third best with McKinzie’s stable companion Mucho Gusto. He landed the race that used to hold the title of world’s richest, the Pegasus Cup, in Florida last month.
Magic Wand was runner-up in a Turf event for the second year running on the same Gulfstream Park card, but the Coolmore Stud-owned mare is likely to face a new challenge this weekend on dirt.
“We are happy with her since the last day so we’re hoping for a good run. Frankie [Dettori] says the dirt rides closer to grass than any other dirt he has ridden on so hopefully it goes well,” O’Brien said on Sunday.
Magic Wand finally broke her duck at Group One level in the Mackinnon Stakes at Flemington in November just four days after finishing 10th in the Melbourne Cup.
She followed that up with an unlucky second in the Hong Kong Cup in December and followed that up with another runner-up spot at Gulfstream.
O’Brien’s star is a general 33-1 shot in Saudi Cup betting.
The Ballydoyle team will have two other runners on Saturday’s card, which includes 66 international riders from nine different countries.
We have 66 horses from nine different countries, which is remarkable really for a first year
The Lingfield all-weather winner Delphinia has a spot in a near-two mile turf handicap alongside Joseph O’Brien’s pair Downdraft and Twilight Payment. Their stable companion Speak In Colours will line up in a sprint.
O’Brien snr will be represented by Mount Everest in a race for which the Japanese star Deirdre is an odds-on favourite. Also lining up in that race is Willie Mullins’s Australian winner True Self and Trais Fluors from the Curragh yard of Ken Condon.
“Willie Mullins’s and Ken Condon’s are here already and we’re expecting six horses on a flight from Shannon on Wednesday. Six horses is a barn for us here in the quarantine unit,” Tom Ryan explained on Sunday.
“We have 66 horses from nine different countries, which is remarkable really for a first year. To say we’re happy about it is an understatement,” he added.