Dubai World Cup 2021: Super Saturday trends and the new Saudi Cup factor

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

March 17th, 2021

Before dusting off Super Saturday’s historical pointers (or lack thereof) to Dubai World Cup night, a caveat is required.

Two developments from 2020 must be taken into account in any consideration of trends. The COVID-forced cancellation of last year’s World Cup festivities means that the most recent data points are from 2019. Ordinarily that hiatus wouldn’t make a significant difference in long-term patterns, but in 2020, it coincided with a brand new variable – the Saudi Cup in February.

Saudi Cup Day has lured a few high-profile contenders away for their final prep, making for a less-Super Saturday in some respects. That figures to reinforce the overall trend against Super Saturday winners going on to score on World Cup night. But will the Saudi Cup Day winners fare any better as they advance to Meydan?

Saudi Cup Day as the novel factor

If not for the pandemic, we would have had evidence for the impact of the inaugural Saudi Cup Day events on the 2020 World Cup card. So this year, for the first time, we’ll see whether to rely on the Saudi form standing up at Meydan, or conversely, take a stand against its carrying over to the Emirates.

The Saudi Cup is an obvious stepping stone to the Dubai World Cup. Yet their different configurations must be noted, with the Saudi Cup a one-turn, about nine-furlong race, compared to the two-turn World Cup at about 1 1/4 miles. A similar point governs the Saudi Derby, a one-turn metric mile as opposed to the about 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby (G2). The Riyadh Dirt Sprint bears a more direct relationship to the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), both being held at about six furlongs.

But one preliminary indicator has emerged: Dubai-based runners, as a general rule, arguably have not performed their best on the Saudi dirt. While that has been particularly noticeable in the Saudi Derby, the sprinters might have been expected to do a bit better too.

The case is harder to make in the Saudi Cup itself, since Godolphin’s Benbatl was a logical third to Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou last year. Nevertheless, this year’s Dubai representative Military Law was an underwhelming sixth, and it could be worth remembering that jockey Antonio Fresu commented that he was laboring on the surface – and Fresu already couldn’t wait to get back to his comfort zone at Meydan.

If so, Dubai horses who disappointed in Saudi might be worth backing to rebound on World Cup night. That could apply especially to forward types who tired down the long King Abdulaziz stretch, but have found that Meydan carries their speed for longer. Godolphin’s highly regarded filly Soft Whisper, who faded in the Saudi Derby, can further this angle if back to her best in the UAE Derby.

Only one Saudi turf race corresponds to the World Cup card

The Saudi Cup Day turf races don’t pose such a surface puzzle, but only one has a neat correspondence to Dubai World Cup night. The Red Sea Turf H., an about 1 7/8-mile affair, is close to the Dubai Gold Cup (G2) over two metric miles at Meydan. There is a difference in conditions, with the Saudi contest being a handicap and the Gold Cup weight-for-age.

The other two on the King Abdulaziz turf course have less in common with the marquee prizes on the World Cup card. Saudi’s 1351 Turf Sprint, an about 6 3/4-furlong dash around a turn, is different from the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) at about six down the Meydan straightaway. And the new Neom Turf Cup, at about 1 5/16 miles, is squarely in between the distances of the about 1 1/8-mile Dubai Turf (G1) and about 1 1/2-mile Sheema Classic (G1).

Thus horses beaten in Saudi could improve if their World Cup targets are more in their wheelhouse. Channel Maker is the poster boy for this angle, as he stretches out from the Neom Turf Cup for the Sheema, but the rub is that he also faces a far stiffer field.

Dubai’s Super Saturday winners find World Cup night tougher

The final course-and-distance preps for the Dubai World Cup card were consolidated in one “Super Saturday” program in 2003. Ever since, it’s a truism that most Super Saturday winners don’t duplicate their efforts on the big night, often versus deeper international fields. Not only is a Super Saturday/World Cup night double rare, but those who peaked three weeks early have a tendency to regress.

Most of the exceptions to this rule are horses who were by far the best in their respective divisions. For example, Dubai Millennium (2000), Street Cry (2002), and Electrocutionist (2006) are the only three winners of the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1) who added the World Cup. (And Electrocutionist is the only one to do so in the Super Saturday era). All three were trained by Saeed bin Suroor.

Only two have turned the Jebel Hatta (G1)/Dubai Turf double, star distaffers Ipi Tombe (2003) and Sajjhaa (2013). Mike de Kock has trained both winners of the Al Bastakiya/UAE Derby double, Asiatic Boy (2007) and Mubtaahij (2015). Likewise only two Burj Nahaar (G3) winners followed up in the Godolphin Mile (G2), African Story (2012) and Tamarkuz (2015). Three swept the Mahab al Shimaal (G3) and Golden Shaheen, but two of those were in the Tapeta era, and only Muarrab (2016) managed it on dirt.

Two of the Super Saturday turf races in recent years, however, have bucked the overall trends. The Dubai City of Gold (G2) winner has doubled up in the Sheema Classic three times – Postponed (2016), Hawkbill (2018), and Old Persian (2019). Three Al Quoz winners were likewise coming off Super Saturday scores, namely Shea Shea (2013), Jungle Cat (2018), and Blue Point (2019). Interestingly, Charlie Appleby has trained four of those six winners (Hawkbill, Old Persian, Jungle Cat, and Blue Point).

Horses can move forward from Super Saturday losses

Six World Cup winners had been beaten in the Al Maktoum Round 3, five of them in the Godolphin or Maktoum family orbit, including Thunder Snow in the past two runnings (2018-19). The only non-Maktoum horse to achieve the feat, however, was the Pascal Bary-trained Brazilian Gloria de Campeao in the inaugural edition on Meydan’s Tapeta in 2010.

Four Dubai Turf winners improved from losses in their Jebel Hatta prep. Rhythm Band (2000), Jay Peg (2008), Presvis (2011), and Benbatl (2018) all ran well to place. The latter two, who had dominated their prior start at the Carnival, suffered narrow reverses as the Jebel Hatta favorite before setting the record straight on World Cup night.

Four Godolphin Mile winners were turning the page from Burj Nahaar losses. Perhaps significantly, half of them came during Meydan’s five-year Tapeta period. The two on dirt were 13 years apart, Heavy Metal (2018) reviving the angle.

Since the Al Quoz was added to World Cup night in 2010, two winners were on the rebound from Super Saturday beats, Sole Power (2015) and The Right Man (2017).

Only two Mahab al Shimaal losers, over 20 years, have won the Golden Shaheen. But both occurred in the old days at Nad al Sheba, so it’s yet to happen in the decade so far at Meydan. The same asterisk applies to the Al Bastakiya: three UAE Derby winners were coming off placings in that feature, but all at Nad al Sheba and none at Meydan.

No horse who’s lost the City of Gold has ever come back to win the Sheema.

The final prep for the Dubai Gold Cup, the Nad al Sheba Trophy (G3), is held prior to Super Saturday, but it warrants inclusion in the discussion for a noticeable trend. While no horse has won both races, four Dubai Gold Cup winners got the fitness they needed by placing in the Nad al Sheba Trophy – an outsized stat from just eight runnings. Its disproportionate impact might be cut down to size, though, with the Red Sea Turf a lucrative option now in Saudi.

Might Saudi Cup Day parallel Super Saturday as a World Cup pointer?

Considering how difficult it’s been historically for horses to win back-to-back on Super Saturday and Dubai World Cup night, my working hypothesis is for a similar phenomenon to develop for the Saudi-to-Meydan gambit. Winners in Riyadh might not be as likely to repeat their top form, a few of those beaten in Saudi have room to improve next out, and both categories have to deal with formidable shippers from Europe and Japan.

We’ll have more analysis after next week’s final declarations for the March 27 Dubai World Cup card.