March 25, 2023

Japan has been steadily growing as a force in international horse racing and Saturday added another major achievement to its record by winning the $20 million Saudi Cupthe richest horse race in the world.

Panthalassa took the lead out of the gate and held off a furious Country Grammer closing rally to win by three quarters of a length.

Country Grammer, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Frankie Dettori, would have taken Panthalassa had the 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) race at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, been just a few strides longer .

“I always worry that the stretch is too long, but (Saturday) it was too short,” Baffert said from his home in La Cañada Flintridge.

It was the third consecutive year that Baffert’s entry finished second in the race. Country Grammer was passed just short of the wire last year and Charlatan took second in 2021.

“I thought this was going to be our year with two good horses,” said Baffert. “But as long as they run it every year, we’ll keep trying.”

Baffert’s other entry, Taiba, finished a disappointing eighth and was no threat to the leaders.

Jockey “Mike (Smith) said he never got into the rhythm and he was struggling with the track,” said Baffert. “He just didn’t bring his A game.”

Panthalassa, trained by Yoshito Yahagi and ridden by Yutaka Yoshida, paid $34.10 to win in international pari-mutuel pools. Gambling is not allowed in Saudi Arabia.

The Japanese influence didn’t stop at Panthalassa, as Japan-based Café Pharoah, Geoglyph and Crown Pride finished third through fifth. Japan has put more resources into its breeding and racing programs, winning two races at the Breeders’ Cup in Del Mar in 2021 – a first after going 0 for 13 at the event. Last year they only sent one horse to the Breeders’ Cup in Keeneland.

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Baffert had a second-place finish in another race as Havnameltdown entered a long and spirited duel with Saudi Commissioner King, who moved to the front by the wire to win by a head in the Saudi Derby.

Baffert plans to send Country Grammer to the $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 25, a 1 1/4 mile race he won last year. He will also send Hopkins to run in the Al Quoz Sprint and Worcester in the UAE Derby on the same day. Taiba and Havnameltdown return to Santa Anita.

Amr Zedan is the owner of Taiba and co-owner of Country Grammer, an absolute bargain when snapped up by WinStar for $110,000 in a scattered sale. Taiba, a son of Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Gun Runner, was a $1.7 million purchase.