In the absence of any American runner in the March 29 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), U.S. racing fans can certainly unite behind Ron the Greek in the world's richest horse race.
Three times a grade I winner for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, most recently in the Sept. 28 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, Ron the Greek was subsequently sold to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. The 7-year-old son of Full Mandate will represent that country in the $10 million contest over 10 furlongs on Tapeta.
In 2013 Ron the Greek won the Jan. 19 Sunshine Millions Classic Stakes by 11 1/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park for Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable, breeder Jack Hammer, and Gary Barber. He finished fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), was third in the Charles Town Classic Stakes (gr. II) and the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), ran fourth in the Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I), and was fourth in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I). He then jumped up with his Jockey Club Gold Cup win at odds of 21-1.
In the U.S., Ron the Greek earned $2,704,691 from 29 starts with a 9-5-3 record, including victories in the 2012 Stephen Foster and Santa Anita Handicap. Among his other victories he counts the 2010 Lecomte Stakes (gr. III), which he won as a 3-year-old when trained by Tom Amoss.
He was also briefly trained by Tom Albertrani, but found the winner's circle again after moving to Mott's stable. After landing listed stakes victories at Aqueduct Racetrack in 2011, he really came into his own in his 5-year-old year. In addition to his multiple grade I scores in 2012, he was runner-up in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) and the Whitney, along with a sixth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup that season and a fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
Ron the Greek has run once since leaving the U.S., winning with ease at Janadriyad. And the connection to America does not end there; he is now trained by French-born Nicholas Bachalard, who spent 17 years with New York-based trainer Christophe Clement before taking up the role as trainer to the Saudi Royal family four years ago.
"I loved my time in America and was blessed to get the job (in Saudi)," Bachalard says. "The Royal family had bought a few horses for the Dubai World Cup before. One was Dynever, who was one in training with Christophe when I was there. They had a good experience with that horse."
Clement trained Dynever to finish runner-up in the 2005 Dubai World Cup, while the King's colors were also carried into the same berth by Premium Tap two years later.
"His Royal Highness has always a passion for racing," Bachalard says. "He has both Arabs and Thoroughbreds and a big (breeding) farm. He likes to watch racing on television every weekend."
Whether King Abdullah tunes in to the World Cup on Saturday remains to be seen, since he is hosting President Obama over the weekend.
Bachalard, 44, shares the royal stables in Saudi with two other trainers: one a native Saudi, the other from Argentina. He handles 60 of the 140 horses on the site, racing them on Fridays and Saturdays in Riyadh between October and March.
Most races are confined to locally-bred horses, although there are 42 annually for imported Thoroughbreds. Some 500 foals are born in Saudi every year. "The aim is to improve what they have, rather than competing for top-end bloodstock at public auction," Bachalard says.
"They are trying to become more international. They want their name to be on the map and to be recognized as a force. It is hard for locally-bred horses to compete internationally, but they are trying their best."
Bachalard says the King's advisers had their eye on Ron the Greek for some time before they acquired him late last year. His name was changed to Wattani (which means "my country") on his arrival, but he will race under his old moniker on Saturday.
As for his prospect, Bachalard said, "He has training well since I got him. I can't tell if he's going to win or not, but he should perform well as long as he handles the surface. Quite a few other horses are in that boat."
It would be an honor for Bachalard to saddle the first Saudi-trained winner of the Dubai World Cup. The prospect is far from implausible: in January, Alsaaeqah (Dynever—Forante, by Forty Niner) became the first Saudi-bred horse to win at the Dubai carnival.
Although that victory gave the Kingdom's horsemen a lot of pleasure, a World Cup score by Ron the Greek would trigger more joyous celebrations for a fledgling racing nation.