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Mandaloun, Midnight Bourbon Renew Rivalry in Saudi Cup

    The simmering rivalry between Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon looks ready to heat up again in the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) Feb. 26 and, according to their respective trainers, could boil over four weeks later in Dubai.

Among those standing in the way of American dominance in Saudi Arabia is Mishriff , the 2021 Saudi Cup winner who would leapfrog Winx , Arrogate , and several others to become history’s highest-earning horse with a repeat win at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh.

Brad Cox and Steve Asmussen, who train Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon, respectively, both oozed optimism as they addressed media Feb. 8 through a virtual feed. Both expect improvement from their colts’ first start as 4-year-olds in the Jan. 22 Louisiana Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. In that race, Mandaloun chased down Midnight Bourbon to win by three-quarters of a length in a virtual match race.

As 3-year-olds their records were inextricably intertwined, first at Fair Grounds where Midnight Bourbon, a Tiznow colt, won the Lecomte Stakes (G3) with Mandaloun third; then in the Risen Star Presented by Lamarque Ford (G2), where Mandaloun won with Midnight Bourbon third. Mandaloun didn’t fire in the Louisiana Derby (G2), finishing sixth, with Midnight Bourbon second to Hot Rod Charlie .

Mandaloun, by Into Mischief , turned things around in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), finishing second to Medina Spirit with Midnight Bourbon sixth after a terrible start. (Mandaloun could eventually be elevated to the win spot as Kentucky stewards are expected this month to consider Medina Spirit’s failed post-race drug test).

Things came to a head July 17 in the Haskell Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park as Hot Rod Charlie dropped in front of Midnight Bourbon just as he was making his move. Midnight Bourbon clipped heels and stumbled, dropping jockey Paco Lopez. Hot Rod Charlie was disqualified to last and none other than Mandaloun inherited the win.

By year’s end, Midnight Bourbon had finished second or third in six graded stakes and left Asmussen shaking his head.

“It’s all there. It really is,” the trainer said. “He has an elite level of talent without finishing it off. It leaves a lot for us moving forward. As accomplished as he is, or as lacking as his résumé is with the wins, he is still in a physical and mental development that I think allows for him to possibly end up being the best horse in training in the world this year.

“I am hoping beyond hope, and expect, that he’s waiting for the Saudi Cup stage to put it all together perfectly,” Asmussen added.

Cox was asked the same question: Should Mandaloun improve off his 2022 debut?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s trainer talk, right?” Cox replied. “If he moves forward again, I think he’s going to be very tough in the Saudi Cup.”

The Saudi challenge will be far more formidable than anything the two have faced in New Orleans, with a full field of well-qualified international runners expected, none more accomplished than Mishriff.

Thady Gosden, who trains Mishriff in partnership with his father, John, believes their 5-year-old son of Make Believe has an advantage over the Americans in the one-turn mile-and-an-eighth configuration at King Abdulaziz Racetrack.

“The one turn makes a big difference,” Gosden said. “The longer straight is especially an advantage to the European horses. The American horses are used to using a lot of speed to get forward and then having a short straight to get home in.

“The surface is also a bit kinder. The kickback is not as bad. It rides a bit softer, a bit fluffier. It’s a brilliant track.”

Asmussen said the layout isn’t that unfamiliar to U.S. trainers.

“I think that it’s the most comparable to Belmont Park, from my limited experience over it. Very minimal kickback for a dirt surface,” he said.

Cox agreed with that assessment.

“It’s a little something we don’t get much here in America. It’s a one-turn mile and an eighth,” Cox said. “We’ll get it at Belmont. I’m confident he’ll be able to handle it.”

The Saudi track has drawn rave reviews from American trainers and plays quite differently from the dirt surface at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. Both Asmussen and Cox said they’re warily eyeing the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) if their horses exit the Saudi race well.

Asmussen said Midnight Bourbon is “definitely focused on the Saudi Cup, and (we) do feel he would be a very good candidate for the Dubai World Cup.”

Regarding the World Cup, Cox remarked: “Chances are that decision won’t be made until a few days after the (Saudi) race. But the guys going with the horse have been told, ‘Pack enough clothes because your journey may last seven or eight weeks.'”

If they do make it to the Dubai starting gate, Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon again would face the colt who wove in and out of their 3-year-old battles—Hot Rod Charlie. The Doug O’Neill charge shipped to Dubai early and easily won his prep race at Meydan, serving notice for the World Cup.

Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes Presented by 1/ST Bet (G1) winner Life Is Good also has Dubai penciled in on his dance card.

Courtesy of the Bloodhorse