Author: Michele Macdonald

THE NEW YEAR MAY be young but, even before two weeks have passed, it is rife with irony. Just four years ago, the Pegasus World Cup was run as the world’s richest race, displacing the Dubai World Cup, yet now the American event, much reduced in prize money, is scrambling so desperately to draw runners that officials sent out a press release announcing that a former $30,000 claimer is set to compete on January 23.

At the same time, the most talented horse on the Pegasus invitation list, the Bob Baffert-trained Grade 1 winner Charlatan, apparently will bypass the race in favour of the Saudi Cup. As Baffert pointed out, there are $20 million worth of reasons to go to Riyadh versus only $3 million worth for the Pegasus in Florida.

Yet, lest we forget, Charlatan is the horse who famously was disqualified last summer from his impressive victory in a division of the Arkansas Derby after testing positive for the drug lidocaine, a therapeutic medication that is not allowed in competition. Considering that the Saudi Cup still has not paid the owners of 2020 winner Maximum Security, citing allegations in the United States that the horse was given improperly labelled substances by then trainer Jason Servis over a period of time before the Riyadh race, it seems Charlatan should, at the very least, be questionable as an entrant. Both Charlatan’s owners and Saudi racing officials should be concerned about the potential issues and conflicts.

Maximum Security apparently ‘never tested positive” for any forbidden or illegal drugs, as co-owner Coolmore has emphasised in recent advertisements for the horse’s career at its Ashford Stud in Kentucky, ‘despite comprehensive testing at the world’s best laboratories’. Saudi officials, while withholding the winning purse, have not asserted that Maximum Security failed their drug testing.

The case with Charlatan also is full of irony. While no one contests the positive test for lidocaine, which caused Arkansas officials to issue a suspension of Baffert that the trainer is fighting legally, it seems clear that the amount of the drug, apparently accidentally transferred to the colt, would not have affected his performance.

Baffert’s attorney Craig Robertson has stated that only 46 picograms of the painkiller lidocaine were found in Charlatan’s urine samples, with a picogram equalling a trillionth of a gram. The amount thus was so small that Robertson said it would have had no effect whatsoever on the colt.

According to Robertson, Charlatan and stablemate Gamine both came into contact with lidocaine in Arkansas when saddled by Baffert’s assistant Jimmy Barnes, who was wearing lidocaine patches for back pain. The substance apparently was accidentally transferred by Barnes to the horses when he applied their tongue ties.

No matter the amount of the drug or the details of the contamination, Arkansas racing rules demand that both Charlatan and Gamine, America’s likely 2020 Champion Female Sprinter, be disqualified from their respective races on Arkansas Derby day. All policy issues and inconsistencies aside in both America and Saudi Arabia, Charlatan could very well be the most potent likely runner worldwide for the Saudi Cup, which is run over 1800m on dirt, virtually the same conditions as offered by the 1 1/8 mile Pegasus.

When the chestnut son of Speightstown crossed the finish line in the Arkansas Derby last May, he was six lengths ahead of his nearest rival as he stopped the clock in a respectable 1:48.49. Sent to the sidelines by a bone chip in an ankle, Charlatan returned to action in late December with a decisive victory in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, finishing the 7f in a quick 1:21.50.

After Charlatan’s most recent workout, when he went half a mile in :49.80 on January 9, Baffert said the lure of the Saudi Arabia race was strong. “He’d be coming back a little quick for the (Pegasus) off a long layoff, and he ran so hard (in the Malibu), I worry about that,” Baffert said. “The thing I like about the Saudi race is it’s a one turn mile and an eighth, and Charlatan is so fast. “It’s a challenge, but it’s $20 million,” Baffert emphasised.

“That’s a lot of money.” While Baffert typically thinks and rethinks his plans, often changing his mind, his statement could indicate that the Dubai World Cup may not be in his current vision for Charlatan after Riyadh as the spacing would be nearly the same as the period between the Malibu and Pegasus.

Additionally, the Meydan marquee event is at 2000m, a distance at which Charlatan is unproven during his brief four race career to date. Where does this leave us in regard to competition for the three major races of January, February and March, the Pegasus, Saudi Cup and Dubai World Cup? At least as far as American competitors go, the list of prime possible contenders seems skimpy.

Baffert’s other potential hopeful for the Pegasus and Saudi Cup, Prince Faisal bin Khaled’s Mucho Gusto, was suddenly retired on January 6 after incurring a soft tissue injury near a pastern. Mucho Gusto won the 2020 Pegasus and finished fourth in the Saudi Cup.

Just three days earlier, Pegasus officials had announced that Charlatan and Mucho Gusto were the headline potential competitors for the event at Gulfstream Park after early favourite Tiz the Law was abruptly retired to Ashford due to bone bruising. Now it appears that Code of Honor and Knicks Go are the best of the potential lot that is left for the Pegasus, and while both are dual Grade One winners, neither is reliably consistent at the elite level.

Further, their trainers are not known for their willingness to compete internationally and thus Riyadh and/ or Dubai are not likely in their future plans. While the ranks at the top of America’s older horse division seem depressingly thinner than usual, younger runners are raising hopes, and both Godolphin and Shadwell possess promising 3yos.

In addition to Essential Quality, the likely Champion Juvenile Male of 2020, Godolphin has several other notable colts. Proxy, a son of Tapit and Grade One winner Panty Raid, has won twice for trainer Michael Stidham and has been entered in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, part of the Kentucky Derby prep series, at Fair Grounds on January 16.

Among the other approximately 60 juveniles Godolphin has in training in America is Tapwood, a colt by Tapit out of multiple Grade One winner Better Lucky. Already Stakes placed for Stidham, Tapwood won on January 1 at Tampa Bay Downs. Meanwhile, Essential Quality returned to work on January 3 with a half mile drill at Fair Grounds for Brad Cox, who described the move as ‘just wow, just phenomenal’.

Cox said the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on February 13 or the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on February 15 could be next for the Tapit colt. Shadwell boasts not only Mutasaabeq, the son of Into Mischief who is a Grade Two winner on turf and recent Listed Stakes winner on dirt for trainer Todd Pletcher, but also Lamutanaatty, a gritty debut winner at Gulfstream on January 9 for Chad Brown.

Also by Into Mischief, Lamutanaatty was a $700,000 yearling purchase, while Mutasaabeq was a $425,000 weanling acquisition. Shadwell’s homebred Union Rags colt Arham drew off to win his debut for Pletcher by seven lengths at Gulfstream on December 17, and that trainer also conditions undefeated Grade Two winning filly Malathaat, a $1,050,000 yearling purchase by Curlin who is being pointed to the Kentucky Oaks.

If Covid does not cause any more shutdowns or setbacks in racing, the 3yo division could dazzle us as the year progresses while, in a best case scenario, new older stars will rise.

Michele MacDonald
Award Winning International Journalist