When handicapping the Saudi Cup, your typical first inclination is to lock in on the familiar. After all, it’s a race offering the unfamiliar in an unfamiliar-to-North American-bettors site.

Mandaloun-Saudi Cup preview
Mandaloun, seen here holding off rival Midnight Bourbon to win January’s Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds, is the 5/2 favorite to win the third running of the Group 1 Saudi Cup, the world’s richest race. (Image: Hodges Photography/Amanda Hodges Weir)

Two years ago, in the first iteration of the $20 million race, it was the familiar site of Maximum Security crossing the finish line first. But last year, it was the unfamiliar (to most North American bettors) site of Mishriff upsetting the very-familiar Charlatan and Knicks Go.

And now, you know what awaits in Saturday’s third edition of the world’s richest race. Promoted to Group 1 status this year, the approximately 1 1/8-mile event offers a good mix of the familiar. Four American horses made the trek to King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, where defending champion Mishriff awaits in defense of his title.

First among equals among the four American entries in the 14-horse field – which also includes Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Marche Lorraine – is Mandaloun. The 5/2 favorite picked up his second Grade 1 victory while halfway around the world when stewards made the Kentucky Derby runner up the winner via the disqualification of Medina Spirit.

Mandaloun the one to beat

The Into Mischief 4-year-old opened his 2022 season with a solid three-quarters of a length victory over perpetual rival Midnight Bourbon at the Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds. Trainer Brad Cox couldn’t have drawn up a better trip if he tried. Mandaloun stalked the field going into the first turn, moved into second at the half-mile post, used the far turn to slingshot into a duel for the lead, then overtook pacesetter Midnight Bourbon in the final sixteenth.

The 115 Equibase Speed Figure coming out of that was a career best. And expect Cox and Florent Geroux to pull that same page out of the playbook here. He’ll let his American compatriots: Midnight Bourbon and Bob Baffert’s Country Grammar, carry the pace water early, then look to spring on the far turn.

Yes, Midnight Bourbon (4/1) is back, looking for that elusive third victory at yet another track. He’s 2-4 against Mandaloun in their four bouts and has finished second in five of his last eight races, including four of his last six. His last trip to the winner’s circle came 13 months ago at the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes. You can count on the son of Tiznow to be near the lead, to leave everything on the track and to somehow find the board. Midnight Bourbon has missed the board only twice in 14 races.

Baffert doesn’t ship horses unless he’s confident

As for Country Grammer (12/1), the 5-year-old returns to the fray nine months after winning the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita. He missed the rest of 2021 with an injury and even with the Baffert factor, it’s a big ask for him to come to the Middle East and conquer this field. A moderate, unfettered pace is what he needs to have a chance.

The fourth American in the field, Art Collector (8/1), is the wild card. He’s won three of four races since moving over to Hall of Famer Bill Mott’s barn last year. Two of those were graded stakes: the Grade 1 Woodward and the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic. Art Collector’s speed figures make him competitive in any field. He clocked a career-best 121 Equibase at Charles Town and a 120 at the Woodward. but his inability to beat truly elite horses – see his sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – is troubling.

That brings us to the international horses and a list that starts with defending champion Mishriff, who opens as the 9/2 third choice. He comes off a fourth in October’s Group 1 Champions Stakes at Ascot, but won three of his previous five races before that. His outside post (14) is slightly problematic, although trainer John Gosden dismissed concerns it would trouble his 5-year-old star. Much like he did last year turning aside Knicks Go and Charlatan, Mishriff will hang around Mandaloun and the other stalkers and wait to pounce.

Could Sealiway steal away this race?

Yes, Marche Lorraine (20/1) is there. But remember two things about the Breeders’ Cup Distaff heroine. First, she needed the mother of all pace meltdowns to steal that race at 49/1. And second, also here is fellow Japanese horse T O Keynes (10/1), who smashed Marche Lorraine easily when they raced last June. He comes in off a win in the Group 1 Champions Cup in Japan.

Along with Art Collector, the X factor here is French colt Sealiway (20/1). The powerful 4-year-old beat Mishriff in that Champions Stakes for his second Group 1 win. But between that and his Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere victory in October 2020, Sealiway owns two seconds, two fifths and an eighth. You have no idea what you’re going to get here. But under new trainer Francis Henri-Graffard – one of Europe’s top rising conditioners — you get a horse who could do what Mishriff did here: break out in a very, very big way.