Panthalassa holds off Country Grammer to win Saudi Cup

Panthalassa holds off Country Grammer to win Saudi Cup
Photo: Carlos Calo / Eclipse Sportswire

The fourth running of the Grade 1, $20 million Saudi Cup went the way of Japan for the first time courtesy of Panthalassa (15-1), who triumphantly switched from turf to dirt to see off all challengers Saturday night for a historic, gate-to-wire victory going 1 1/8 miles.

It was an evening for the powerful racing nation to rejoice with Panthalassa’s success under veteran jockey Yutaka Yoshida, meaning Bob Baffert’s American raider Country Grammer (7-2) had to settle for the runner-up place once again in the world’s richest race.

“He ran a super race,” Country Grammer’s jockey Frankie Dettori said. “At the top of the straight I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to finish sixth,’ but he just has too much heart. He wants a mile-and-a-quarter. Super result. They were coming back to me, but the winning post was there (for Panthalassa).”

In the latter stages it appeared Japan runners would fill the first four places in the Saudi Cup, but Country Grammer finished with a flourish down the outside to claim second, three-quarters of a length adrift. Café Pharoah (14-1), Geoglyph (36-1) and Crown Pride (12-1), all trained in Japan, finished third through fifth in that order. Last year’s winner Emblem Road (10-1) was sixth.

Post-time favorite Taiba (8-5), also trained by Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, never was a threat and finished eighth in the field of 13.

With Dettori, Baffert also experienced a narrow defeat on the undercard when Havnameltdown lost by a head to Commissioner King in the Saudi Derby (G3). 

Havnameltdown loses thriller in Saudi Derby.

Panthalassa’s winning time was 1:50.795 without a run-up for the nine furlongs around one left turn on the fast, dirt track. The 6-year-old horse by Lord Kanaloa won from the rail post under Yoshida.

“Panthalassa had a perfect start today,” winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi said. “I applaud Yutaka’s jump. It was a masterful job from the jockey.”

“When he drew post 1, my tactic was simply to take a lead,” Yoshida said. “He sometimes doesn’t jump well, so I concentrated on giving him a good start, and he did it. When he took an early lead, the others did not give too much pressure to him. The pace was not too strong for him. It was another factor for him to keep finding until the line.”

Acknowledging the switch from turf, where Panthalassa had run 23 of his first 24 races, Yahagi said Saturday’s win confirmed his confidence in the move.

“This horse only has one way to go,” he said. “He jumped really well when he needed to and got the job done. I think I was correct that my feeling was right that he could handle the dirt. You know this is not easy. Japanese racing tries everything to improve and develop. Japanese horse racing has become more international. Of course, this is the best feeling as the prize money is the best.”

It was yet another night to remember for the globally popular Yahagi, who also trained Bathrat Leon’s victory in the 1351 Turf Sprint. Yahagi was among the winning trainers last year when Japan runners took four races on the card. The strength of racing in his home country was confirmed again this weekend with three more wins in front of an appreciative crowd at King Abdulaziz Equestrian Field.

“I really can’t believe it. I don’t know if it is real at the moment,” Yahagi said. “When I started training, no one knew me,” Yahagi said. “When I wore a (colorful) hat, they knew who I was.”

Asked what might be next for Panthalassa, Yahagi said it could be another start on the dirt next month in the Middle East.

“I will discuss with my owner (Hiroo Race Company), and then we will decide if we go to Dubai for the World Cup (G1), which is, of course, a possibility. If my owners let me go to Europe, I would love the challenge.”

Yahagi also acknowledged the purple hat he wore. It looked familiar.

“Today I wore the same hat I wore at the Breeders’ Cup,” he said. “I have between 200 and 300 hats. I don’t count. It would be fun if they started a game where they bet on the color of my hat.”

With Saturday’s first-place prize of $10 million, Panthalassa increased his career earnings to $14,418,903, 14th most in world Thoroughbred history.

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