Saudi Cup, Dubai World Cup, Kentucky Derby brew U.S. versus Japan storylines

Linda's Gift wins the Santa Ana Stakes for fillies and mares on the Santa Anita turf. Benoit photo, courtesy of Santa Anita
Linda's Gift wins the Santa Ana Stakes for fillies and mares on the Santa Anita turf. Benoit photo, courtesy of Santa Anita

Feb. 26 (UPI) -- If the fifth running of the Saudi Cup program proved anything, it served as a reminder that Japan and the United States seem to have locked up in a latter-day arms race involving the world's top dirt races.

Satuday's $20 million Saudi Cup itself and the $1.5 million Saudi Derby followed directly in the mold of November's Breeders' Cup Classic, with a Japanese horse and an American runner slugging it out for the victory.

The fallout from those classic battles is sure to reverberate through the year, from the Kentucky Derby all the way to the 2024 Breeders' Cup at Del Mar,

The Saudi Cup came down to which of the two deep, deep closers could get a nose on the wire before the other. The answer was Senor Buscador, who just nipped reigning Dubai World Cup winner Ushba Tesoro for the win.

Third and fourth were two more Americans, Saudi Crown and National Treasure, followed by another from Japan, Derma Sotogake.

Forever Young wins the Saudi Derby, heading for Dubai and Kentucky. Photo by Mathea Kelley/Courtesy of Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia

Senor Buscador, a 6-year-old son of Mineshaft trained by long-time New Mexican Todd Fincher, became the de facto leader of the American Classic division, especially as Breeders' Cup Classic champ White Abarrio finished 10th in the Saudi Cup.

After a reassessment, some will go on from Riyadh to Dubai for the World Cup program. Others may meet again through the year.

The Road to the Roses

Primacy on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard has been changing weekly and this week the top spot goes to Timberlake, winner of Saturday's $1.25 million Rebel at Oaklawn Park.

The Into Mischief colt, owned by WinStar Farm and trained by Brad Cox, had been away from the races since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but went to the post as the odd-on favorite against 11 rivals.

He justified the faith, drafting behind the leaders, moving outside to get on even terms exiting the stretch turn and kicked away to win by 2 lengths. The 50 points he earned put him in the catbird seat -- at least for now -- on the tally sheet used to determine the Derby field.

The Rebel performance brought a smile to the face of WinStar's Elliott Walden, who said further planning will await Cox's return from Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, it looked for all the world that Florida-based Book'em Danno had wrapped up the Saturday's $1.5 million Saudi Derby. The Bucchero colt, always prominent in the talented international field, had opened a gaping lead in the stretch, and all he needed was the wire.

Then, along came Forever Young, a Japanese runner who had turned heads by winning all three previous starts in Japan in classy style. The Real Steel colt got off to a rough start and looked destined to finish second well within the final furlong.

But, as did in his previous start back home, he made up everything with a remarkable turn of foot and got home first by a head, confirming the fears of Book'em Danno's connections that his distance ability is stretched at 1 mile.

The other American in the field, Bentornato, finished third, 6 lengths farther back.

Forever Young, trained by internationally minded Yoshito Yahagi, is expected to follow the path blazed last by Derma Sotogake, who earned his way into the Kentucky Derby with a victory in the Grade 2 UAE Derby. But then he will hope to improve on Derma Sotogake's sixth-place showing in Louisville.

"He didn't have a good start," Yahagi said. "He was wide out and it was a tough race, but he ended up winning, so we are very satisfied. ... We will first head to the UAE Derby before hopefully the Kentucky Derby."

The Path to the Oaks

Never underestimate horses trained by venerable D. Wayne Lukas, especially at Oaklawn Park. See, for example, Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Honeybee. Lukas-trained Lemon Muffin was still a maiden as she lined up against some stakes-proven rivals.

But the last four of those efforts resulted in second-place finishes and the Honeybee finally worked out for her.

After challenging for the lead in the stretch, amid some bumping Lemon Muffin shot clear and was gone before the favorite, Silverbulletday Stakes winner West Omaha, got her wheels turning. Lemon Muffin won by 3 1/2 lengths in her first start beyond 7 furlongs.

In Dubai, a Star Guitar filly could be on her way back to the States with the Kentucky Oaks on her dance card. Again, see the International roundup for more.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Trainer Steve Asmussen tossed Zeitlos into the stakes ranks for the first time in Saturday's $150,000 Carousel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and was rewarded with the 4-year-old Curlin filly's third straight win.


Octane stalked the pace in Saturday's $600,000 Grade III Razorback at Oaklawn Park, advanced to the lead entering the stretch and held off the favorite, Magic Tap, by 3/4 length. Notary finished third.

Florida-based Octane, a 4-year-old Brethren gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.57 with Julien Leparoux up for trainer Juan Alvarado.

Filly & Mare Turf

Linda's Gift pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Ana Stakes at Santa Anita, took over the point exiting the far turn and got clear to win by 3 3/4 lengths over Queens Command. Linda's Gift is a 4-year-old Arrogate filly.

Turf Sprint

Smithwick's Spice fought off two rivals on the front end to get the win in Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash at Tampa Bay Downs.

Play the Music did it the other way in the companion $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares. She rallied from well back to score the win.