This bumper crop of top older horses means America looks set for a fascinating 2020

Heading for Riyadh: Mucho Gusto storms clear in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. Photo: Gulfstream Park

Every year the breeding industry’s clarion call for new stallions results in many, if not all, of the best 3-year-olds and older males being retired to pass on their bloodlines to a new set of colts and fillies. This is where the owners in the Sport of Kings have attempted to get ahead, or at least break even, with lucrative stallion deals.

However, this year North America’s older male division is complemented by two extraordinary events that rarely occur. A record number of top 3-year old males are returning, and some of the 2019 older male division’s strongest participants are back too.  

Multiple G1-placed Mucho Gusto staked his claim to lead the division with an impressive win by 4½ lengths over the field in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park last month. This Bob Baffert trainee took advantage of the defections of the two favorites for the race, Omaha Beach and Spun to Run

He is now being aimed at the $20 million Saudi Cup at Riyadh on February 29 per his owner, Prince Faisal Bin Khaled, where he is scheduled to meet 2019 U.S. Three-Year Old Champion Male Maximum Security and multiple G1-placed and multiple Graded stakes winner Tacitus, in addition to Champion Older Dirt Male finalist McKinzie, and Champion Older Female Midnight Bisou

These five entries represent as many American horses as have ever contested the top-money race on the Arabian Peninsula. Along with a powerful group of international runners - multiple G1 winners Benbatl and Gold Dream, 2019 G1 scorers Chrysoberyl and Magic Wand, as well as Gronkowski, who was runner-up in last year’s Dubai World Cup and Justify’s Belmont - mean the new race is looking particularly strong.

Many of the Saudi Cup entries may also run in the $12 million Dubai World Cup a month later, depending upon their performance in Riyadh. 

Other top older horses who had earlier been considered for the Saudi Cup were G1 Clark Stakes winner Tom’s d’Etat and G1 Santa Anita Handicap scorer Gift Box, who was also a runner-up behind Champion Older Male Vino Rosso in last year’s G1 Gold Cup. Tom’s d’Etat may target the G2 New Orleans Classic while Gift Box will be staying home in California to defend the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.

Finally, G1 Pennsylvania Derby winner Math Wizard, campaigned by leading Saudi owner Khalid bin Mishref, who bought a 30 percent share in the horse, races in tomorrow’s G3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park as a prep for either the G2 Godolphin Mile or the Dubai World Cup. 

Returning 3-year olds of 2019

It looked as though all three winners of the 2019 Triple Crown races would be returning to training for their 4-year-old seasons until laminitis meant the decision was taken in the last few days to retire Country House, who was elevated to first in the Kentucky Derby but has not run since. 

Nevertheless it seems to be all systems go for the other two Classic heroes.

Belmont winner Sir Winston won an allowance race at Aqueduct on January 31 after a last-place finish on turf in the Woodchopper Stakes at Fair Grounds in December. His connections plan to enter the 1m½-furlong Bernardini Stakes at Aqueduct on February 29 as a prep for a possible bid for the Dubai World Cup. 

According to trainer Mark Casse, the first priority for Preakness Stakes winner War Of Will, back in training at Palm Meadows Training Center, is to get him a G1 win on the turf. As well as the winners of the three Triple Crown races themselves, the winners of all but one of the final Kentucky Derby prep races will be back racing this season (G1 Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach has been retired to Spendthrift Farm).

A son of the only two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner, Goldencents, By My Standards, who won the G2 Louisiana Derby, is back in training after being on hiatus because of hoof issues since finishing 11th in the Kentucky Derby. Having returned to Brett Calhoun’s barn in December, he just won his 2020 debut, an allowance race, by six lengths,. He is now being pointed toward the New Orleans Classic.   

Plus Que Parfait, the UAE Derby winner, may be targeting the Dubai World Cup. He is currently training with Brendan Walsh’s stable at Palm Meadows.

After finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby, G1 Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma had time off at Margaux Farm in Versailles after grabbing a quarter while in training at Saratoga. He returned to training with George Weaver this winter at Palm Meadows, where he has turned in a couple of works, but it is unclear when and where he will make his first start. 

Baffert has a trio of top 4-year-olds looking to make their mark in 2020. Santa Anita Derby winner and more recently G1 Malibu Stakes runner-up Roadster began the year in the G2 San Pasqual Stakes, finishing a disappointing seventh. Before this finish, the Dubai World Cup was possible next out. Now his next race is up in the air. 

Remaining are a pair of Baffert 2-year old stars who had forgettable 3-year old seasons in Two-Year Old Male Champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Game Winner and G1 Los Alamitos Derby winner Improbable

Game Winner was last seen in July, winning the G3 Los Alamitos Derby. He was a possible for the Travers Stakes before contracting a fever. Owned by Gary West, who also has Maximum Security, he returned to training in mid-January with no campaign plans announced as of yet. 

Shared Belief Stakes winner Improbable had a troubled trip in the Pennsylvania Derby and had little left in the stretch in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. No plans have been signaled for his 2020 return. 

BC Dirt Mile winner Spun To Run, who missed the Pegasus with a rash, has shipped to Parx and, if all goes well, will target the Godolphin Mile. 

Finally, G1 Travers Stakes and G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Code Of Honor has rejoined Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey at Payson Park’s Training Center in Indiantown, Florida, after a well-earned respite. This Lanes End colt is expected to return to the races in April.   

Returning older horses 

Four-time G1 winner McKinzie and Gift Box have already been mentioned. However, there are a couple of other G1-winning older horses who are competing in 2020. 2017 G1 Clark Handicap and 2019 G2 Stephen Foster winner Seeking The Soul began his final year of competition by finishing seventh in the Pegasus. He is possible for the Dubai World Cup as owner Charles Fipke tries to get him that elusive G1 win at ten furlongs. Also, in the Pegasus as the favorite was G1 Pacific Classic winner Higher Power, who finished last, having gone off his feed days before the race. He may be pointed to the Santa Anita Handicap. 

Reddam Racing’s Pavel, who finished fourth in last year’s Dubai World Cup, is being pointed to the 2020 race, though he has not raced since the Pacific Classic or recently participated in any recorded works. His trainer, Doug O’Neill, sent him over to Dubai in mid-January. “That is our dream — the World Cup with Pavel,” O’Neill has said. “He really does enjoy it over there, and I think all of our horses do when they go.” 

Also, six-time G1-placed Gunnevera is listed as possible for the World Cup with trainer Anthony Sano. He has not raced or had any recorded works since his third in the 2019 edition of that race.  

So, 2020’s older male division welcomes back for the new campaign no less than 11 horses who won G1 dirt races in 2019. Add to that returning older males who won G1s in prior years and there are a total of 15 individual G1 winners competing in 2020. 

Thus, unless one horse proves particularly dynamic in this competitive environment, G1 wins could scarce. 

Another factor that could prove important is durability. Three-year olds By My Standards, Country House, Game Winner, Maximum Security, Sir Winston and Vekoma all missed races because of fitness issues. The same was true for 6-year old Gift Box in the older horse ranks. So, a horse like War Of Will, who competed in nine races and five G1s, including all three Triple Crown races, or McKinzie, who competed in seven races, five of them G1s, could have a decided edge over their less durable peers. 

No matter what the result, it should be fun to see how the 2020 older male division shakes out as the year progresses. One certainty is that the fields for the inaugural Saudi Cup and 25th Dubai World Cup could include more North American-based entries than have ever appeared in a single top-money race on the Arabian Peninsula.

Todd Sidor, an attorney by trade, has produced equine law seminars, and continues to be active in racing partnerships. His more than two decades passion and respect for the sport of horse racing will always make him, first and foremost, a racing enthusiast.

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