Japan's Lemon Pop carries Godolphin hopes for a first Saudi Cup success

Connections believe Japan’s dirt champion is primed for the $20 million prize after his Champions Cup success in December

Saudi Cup hopeful Lemon Pop warms up during the morning track work at the King Abdulaziz racetrack in Riyadh. AP
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Godolphin's hopes of winning the world's richest horse race - the $20 million Group 1 Saudi Cup - rest on Japanese raider Lemon Pop when the action gets underway at King Abdulaziz racetrack in Riyadh on Saturday.

Japan’s reigning dirt champion goes in the 1,800-metre dirt race that has drawn 14 runners from across Europe, America and Asia.

Trained by Hiroyasu Tanaka and ridden by Ryusei Sakai, the six-year old son of Lemon Drop Kid makes only his second trip to the region.

He was in Dubai last March on World Cup night for the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen but finished out of the running at Meydan. Before that race, Lemon Pop boasted an impressive record of 10 wins with three second-placed finishes in 14 career starts.

Following that disappointment, Lemon Pop bounced back to form with a sensational win in the NAR Grade 1 Mile Championship Nambu Hai before becoming only the fourth horse to win both JRA dirt Grade 1 races with another superior run in the Champions Cup.

His 2023 performances saw him crowned Japan’s Best Dirt Horse ahead of Ushba Tesoro and Derma Sotogake, and he faces both horses in the Saudi Cup.

The field also includes US challengers White Arbarrio, successful in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and Pegasus World Cup winner National Treasure.

“We have great respect for all the horses in the Saudi Cup and this is a big ask for Lemon Pop, not just because of the local horses or those from America, which is the home of dirt racing, but also the Japanese horses,” Harry Sweeney, president of Godolphin in Japan, told the godolphin.com.

“Incredibly, Ushba Tesoro, Derma Sotogake and Lemon Pop have never raced against each other, even in Japan. So, we are respectful of all and even a little afraid of many of the runners.

“We have enormous confidence in our jockey. In Lemon Pop’s last race in the Champions Cup, we drew the outside. A horse had never won from that position before but Lemon Pop overcame those odds. He is going to have to do it again from stall three but let’s see how it goes.

“This is an enormously important race for Japan. We only have two Grade 1 races on the JRA on dirt in the entire calendar, so we don’t have that many opportunities.”

That was Lemon Pop’s first run over the Saudi Cup 1,800-metre distance. He was drawn the widest in a 15-horse field, running a superb race to cross the winning post to beat Wilson Tesoro by a length and a-quarter at the Chukyo racetrack.

“Lemon Pop won the February Stakes and Champions Cup last year, so we are keen to come abroad and try something else,” said Sweeney.

Panthalassa won the Saudi Cup for Japan last year and Sweeney believes the Japanese runners have now proved they can compete on both turf as well as dirt.

“Japan has invested very heavily in its people and horses over the years and we are now keen to try and prove our horses overseas,” he added.

“Japan has won more than 50 Group/Grade 1 races abroad in the last 20 years, but mostly on turf and it’s a new venture for us to be trying dirt.

Ushba Tesoro won the Dubai World Cup last year and Derma Sotogake won the UAE Derby, while horses have run well at the Breeders’ Cup, but dirt is not our forte. We are more a nation of turf horses, although now we are trying to prove that the dirt horses can do it as well.”

Updated: February 23, 2024, 9:14 AM