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Could Saudi Cup Be a Breeders' Cup Classic Replay?

Others aim to mix up the outcome in a tough international challenge.

White Abarrio trains Feb. 21 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

White Abarrio trains Feb. 21 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia/Neville Hopwood

The trainers of the top two finishers from the 2023 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) see a repeat of that finish brewing for the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) Feb. 24 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh.

Rick Dutrow Jr., trainer of Classic winner White Abarrio, was reminiscing at a racetrack news conference three days before the world's richest race about the Santa Anita Park feature that saw Japanese contender Derma Sotogake falling a length short of White Abarrio at the finish line.

Derma Sotogake, Dutrow said, surprised him as he thought another Japanese runner, 2023 Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Ushba Tesoro, had the better chance in the Classic. But after that experience, he said, he is convinced.

"If he (Derma Sotogake) runs that big again," Dutrow said, "it might be those two coming down to the wire again."

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That bold assessment is met with some skepticism from other connections fancying their horses' chances against the big guns.

Among them, the likes of Ushba Tesoro, who won a prep race in Japan in December; 2023 Preakness Stakes (G1) winner National Treasure, who just missed beating 2023 United States Horse of the Year Cody's Wish  in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) before winning the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) in January; Senor Buscador, second in both the Pegasus and the Dec. 2 Cigar Mile Handicap (G2); and Japan's 2023 Champions Cup (G1) winner, Lemon Pop.

Others have chances, too, in a race that has provided more than its share of surprises.

But Dutrow said he believes he has figured out the best for White Abarrio since taking over his training last year. He added glue-on shoes and, largely through unplanned quirks in scheduling, has found the 5-year-old son of Race Day runs best with some spacing between races.

"If he runs his race, he's going to be hard to beat," Dutrow said, adding, "I'd rather win this race than any other race in the world."

Derma Sotogake's trainer, Hidetaka Otonashi, said he sees things differently for his colt, who finished third in the 2023 Saudi Derby (G3), then won the UAE Derby (G2) in Dubai, earning a place in the Kentucky Derby (G1).

Otonashi, through an interpreter, noted that his colt also had unplanned interruptions in his training and racing schedule, forcing him to go from a sixth-place finish in Louisville, Ky., directly to a first-up run in the Breeders' Cup.

"That was a six-month break," Otonashi said. "If he had one race (in between), the result would have been changed."

Otonashi also revealed Derma Sotogake suffered an eye injury during his flight to Saudi Arabia but said he does not believe the mishap will affect his performance in the Saudi Cup.

"He and another horse had a fight on the plane," he joked. "He's okay now."

If the Saudi Cup does come down to Derma Sotogake and White Abarrio at the finish, they will be coming from opposite directions. Derma Sotogake drew the 13 stall in a field of 16. White Abarrio got the rail.

"He had the number 2 hole last time, so it can't be a problem," Dutrow said.

The Cup is run at 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) around one turn—a configuration that opens it to horses like National Treasure and Hoist the Gold.

"We think he's a one-turn specialist," said Dallas Stewart, who saddles Hoist the Gold. "It's going to be a fight. It's a great race. Glad to be in it."

Jimmy Barnes represented National Treasure's trainer, Bob Baffert, who has saddled the runner-up in three straight Saudi Cups. He said the colt is maturing beautifully.

"He's just got better and better," said Baffert's chief assistant, "beginning to put races together. And he really loves it here."

Senor Buscador and Hoist the Gold drew gates 4 and 8, respectively, at a ceremony conducted in the open desert air at King Abdulaziz Racecourse.

The strong Japanese squad is spread throughout the starting gate. Ushba Tesoro goes from the number 11 stall, reigning champion Japanese dirt horse Lemon Pop drew the number 3 stall, and Crown Pride got the 6.

Meisho Hario, originally slated for post 12, has been scratched, allowing Scotland Yard to draw into the field. The former Steve Asmussen trainee has won four of seven starts in Saudi Arabia since being purchased by HRH Prince Saud bin Salman Stables at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton July Horses of Racing Age Sale.