Sports career

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Tony Mullins will treat star of the stay Princess Zoe to a new “mini-race” in preparation for the $2.5 million Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap at next month’s Saudi Cup meeting.

The hugely popular Irish mare will gallop at Leopardstown after the Dublin Racing Festival set up on the track the first weekend in February.

She will then have three weeks until she competes in the 3,000m contest – the longest race in the world’s richest race meeting – on Saturday February 26. The Group 3 Handicap is one of the supporting prizes on the Saudi Cup card at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh.

“Everything is going according to plan. I don’t want Saudi to be her first race of the season so I’m making up my own little mini-race. It will only be two or three horses, but it will make her feel like she has one race under his belt,” Mullins said.

“We will go at real race pace and it will depend on the terrain how far we go. If there’s a good cut in the ground we’ll go 1m 4f (2400m) and if it’s a bit faster we might go 1m 6f (2800m).

“She had nowhere to race as we don’t have a suitable winter program for horses of her caliber here in Ireland. We are treating this as a race to give her a place for Saudi Arabia,” a- he added.

Since joining Mullins from Germany a few years ago, Princess Zoe has gone from a low-level handicapper to one of the best remaining in Europe.

She achieved a superb quintuple in 2020 by taking her first Group 1 success in the Prix du Cadran at Longchamp on the weekend of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Last season she had the best performance of her career when she finished second to Subjectivist in the Group 1 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. The defense of her Prix du Cadran crown in early October did not go as planned but she came back limping after finishing only fifth behind Trueshan.

Mullins said: “We were always worried about a fast pitch but she seemed to handle it very well at Royal Ascot. The minute it happened, I said, “Saudi Arabia is where I want to go.”

“In our opinion, the Saudi Arabian Cup is the new must-attend event of the year. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the prize money.

“I’ve only seen videos of the track in Riyadh – haven’t really been there. Looks like a nice track, although a bit sharp for staying horses. Maybe it’ll suit him – I certainly don’t see any reason why the track wouldn’t.

Although she failed to win in five races last season, Mullins said, the now 7-year-old gray mare performed better than she had the previous year. He is convinced that it has improved further over the winter months.

“I keep saying it, but I think she’s an even better mare this time around, which is amazing at her age,” he said.

Princess Zoe has developed a cult following during her rise through the ranks. Despite competition from some of the world’s best for the affections of the racing public, she is one of Ireland’s most popular horses and Mullins realizes how important she is to the horse-loving nation.

He said: “I think the Irish like to see the underdogs show up and take on the big boys. She did it and we did it – both together. She’s a very pretty mare and gray, I don’t know what she is but they love her as much as I do.

“We’ve had a lot of beautiful winners in 30 years of training, but Princess Zoe is in a different stratosphere.

“It’s nice to know that if we get the material, we can do the job. It’s a good feeling,” he said. “There’s no team here that could take on Man Utd but, in racing, you can still do it. It’s the only sport in the world that allows you to get to the top from low places. It’s like a little boy from here in Gowran playing against Ronaldo.

“We were lucky and fortunate to have a mare like Princess Zoe. We are now at the first table – I shake myself every day thinking about it.

Regular rider Joey Sheridan is another part of Princess Zoe’s fairy tale. The 20-year-old apprentice jockey will be on board again as she tries to add another chapter to her incredible history in the Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap. The race offers more than five times the prize money of last year’s Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

Mullins said: “Joey is there now so he will be riding in Riyadh in early February. He is going to do a few outings before the big meeting, which is huge. I love it – having our jockey there knowing the track.