Japan has been steadily growing as a force in international horse racing and Saturday added another big accomplishment to its record by winning the $20-million Saudi Cup, the richest horse race in the world.
Panthalassa took the lead out of the gate and held off a furious closing rally by Country Grammer to win by three-quarters of a length.
Country Grammer, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Frankie Dettori, would have caught Panthalassa if the 1,800-meter race (about 1 1/8-miles) at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were just a few strides longer.
“I always worry about the stretch being too long, but [Saturday] it was too short,” Baffert said from his home in La Cañada Flintridge.
It was the third straight year Baffert‘s entry has finished second in the race. Country Grammer was passed just before the wire last year and Charlatan was second in 2021.
“I thought this was going to be our year with two good horses,” Baffert said. “But as long as they run it every year, we’ll keep trying.”
Baffert’s other entry, Taiba, finished a disappointing eighth and never threatened the leaders.
Jockey “Mike [Smith] said he never got into rhythm and he was struggling with the track,” Baffert said. “He just didn’t bring his A game.”
Panthalassa, trained by Yoshito Yahagi and ridden by Yutaka Yoshida, paid $34.10 to win in international pari-mutuel pools. Gambling is not allowed in Saudi Arabia.
The Japanese influence didn’t end with Panthalassa as Japan-based Café Pharoah, Geoglyph and Crown Pride finished third to fifth. Japan has been putting more resources into its breeding and racing programs, and in 2021 won two races at the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar — a first after being 0 for 13 going into the event. Last year, they sent only one horse to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.
Baffert had a second place in another race when Havnameltdown engaged in a long and spirited stretch duel with Saudi-based Commissioner King, who edged forward near the wire to win by a head in the Saudi Derby.
Baffert plans to send Country Grammer to the March 25 $12-million Dubai World Cup, a 1 1/4-mile race he won last year. He will also send Hopkins to run in the Al Quoz Sprint and Worcester in the UAE Derby on the same day. Taiba and Havnameltdown will return to Santa Anita.
Amr Zedan is the owner of Taiba and part-owner of Country Grammer, an absolute bargain when he was picked up by WinStar for $110,000 in a dispersal sale. Taiba, a son of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Gun Runner, was a $1.7-million purchase.