American stars Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon are set to renew their rivalry at the $20 million Saudi Cup in Riyadh later this month.
The pair clashed in last month’s Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds when Mandaloun came out on top by three-quarters of a length.
Now they will go head-to-head again in the world’s most valuable race, run over 1,800 meters on the dirt track at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh on Saturday Feb. 26.
The Louisiana Stakes was Mandaloun’s first run since he was awarded the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park in July, when Hot Rod Charlie was disqualified for impeding Midnight Bourbon after passing the winning post a nose in front.
A setback prematurely ended the Kentucky Derby runner-up’s three-year-old season, and his trainer Brad Cox believes he is still improving ahead of his trip to Saudi Arabia for the world’s most valuable fixture.
“Mandaloun ran a really big race at Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Stakes. It was his first run in a while, and he appears to have come out of it in great order. He had a good workout on Sunday morning,” Cox said.
“He seems to have moved forward from three to four. If he moves forward again, he’s going to be tough in the Saudi Cup.
“I always thought he was a Grade 1 horse, so it was important for us and for Juddmonte to try to win a Grade 1 with him and add him to the stallion roster,” he added.
“Obviously, he was awarded the Grade 1 in the Haskell Stakes. Out of the Haskell he just wasn’t quite right behind, and we just gave him the time he needed.”
Cox said Mandaloun had come back “bigger and stronger,” a view backed by Florent Geroux, who rode him and said he found him to be a “more polished” horse mentally.
Cox said: “I think the track will be fine. He’s a horse who’s capable of being where we need him to be in a race. He’s able to adjust to the pace. If it’s slow he can be up close, if it’s fast he can sit off it.”
He added: “A one-turn mile-and-an-eighth (1,800 meters) isn’t something we get much in America, Belmont is the only place, but I’m confident he’ll be able to handle it.
“The Saudi Cup hasn’t been around long, but it’s definitely grabbed the attention of the entire world.
“It’s becoming a race on everyone’s calendar, and if we were capable of winning it for Juddmonte, it would obviously mean a tremendous amount.”
Despite finishing behind Mandaloun in the Louisiana Stakes and last year’s Kentucky Derby, when he endured a troubled passage, Midnight Bourbon’s trainer Steve Asmussen has high hopes that his stable star will finally claim his big-race victory.
He has not enjoyed much luck during his career. He unseated Paco Lopez when hampered as he made his challenge in the Haskell Stakes, and his trainer believes the ability is there to be a champion.
“He has an elite level of talent without finishing it off at this stage. He’s not had the success his ability would allow, but it also leaves a lot for us moving forward,” said Asmussen.
“He’s still in a physical and mental development that I think allows for him to possibly end up being the best horse in training in the world this year,” he added.
“The only time he’s missed the break in his life was in the Kentucky Derby, which was won by a horse (Medina Spirit) he breaks next to in the Preakness and runs into the ground.
“It’s one thing after another but it’s there, it just needs to come together. I’m hoping beyond hope and expecting that he’s waiting for the Saudi Cup stage to put it all together perfectly.”
Jockey Joel Rosario rode Midnight Bourbon in the Louisiana Stakes, and he will keep the ride in the Group 1 Saudi Cup.
He will need to reverse that form with Mandaloun, but Asmussen believes last month’s race will put the edge on his big-race hope.
“His numbers are very competitive with any horse in the world, the numbers being the speed he has attained. We just have to finish it off,” he said.
“He’s considerably more mature in his approach to training than he has been in the past. He had a beautiful work on Sunday at Fair Grounds,” he added.
“He came out of it in great shape, and he went back to the track very well on Tuesday morning.”
The American pair will attempt to wrestle the Saudi Cup crown from last year’s winner Mishriff.
He was reported to be in good shape ahead of the world’s most valuable race by joint-trainer Thady Gosden on Tuesday.