February 8, 2023

Taiba  not only ran like a 2-5 favorite in winning the Runhappy Malibu Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park Dec. 26, he capped off an incredible day for trainer Bob Baffert. While Baffert has had many multiple winning days during his Hall of Fame career, he will remember this one for some time.

Baffert had already won four races on the opening-day card, including the La Brea Stakes (G1) with Fun to Dream  and the San Antonio Stakes (G2) with Country Grammer . Baffert is the co-breeder of Fun to Dream, and he put Frankie Dettori on Country Grammer in what was the first of three wins on the card for the champion European jockey.

Taiba kept his Santa Anita record perfect in the Malibu, despite the seven furlongs being a shorter distance than he prefers.

“The further the better for him,” Baffert said.

To give Taiba more ammunition, Baffert put some quick drills into the colt, who hadn’t faced the starter since finishing third behind the older Flightline   and Olympiad   in the Nov. 5 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). That and jockey Mike Smith hustling Taiba out of the gate quickly set up Taiba for the win.

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“He put him into the race right away—that’s not Taiba’s style,” Baffert said.

Baffert noted that Taiba has filled out and matured since the Breeders’ Cup, and the colt followed Smith’s instructions.

“That horse is like a bike, and you have to pedal,” Smith said. “Going long you don’t have to do it as much, but I knew that going short it would be tough.”

Shortly after the start, Forbidden Kingdom , a two-time graded winner who likes to set the pace, went to the front. Taiba and Smith never let Forbidden Kingdom get too far ahead, running just a length back, while Straight No Chaser  raced just to the outside of Taiba.

“I didn’t see the outside horse, and I decided not to take a chance and see what he was going to do,” Smith said. “Normally, I have to get aggressive with him at that point like I did in Philadelphia (when Taiba won the Pennsylvania Derby-G1). But today that horse actually helped me.”

When Taiba reached the top of the stretch, it appeared that maybe he wouldn’t have the punch he needed, but that was an illusion. Taiba kicked in, pulling alongside Forbidden Kingdom, and then drew away to score by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:21.75. Forbidden Kingdom finished three-quarters of a length in front of third-place Hoist the Gold .

“At the top of the stretch, it almost looks like he’s gutted,” Baffert said. “But that’s the way he is. He’s very deceiving. If you watch him in the mornings, he’ll never get a clocker’s eye. He’ll surprise you in the afternoon.”

Then Baffert paid Taiba a high compliment by adding, “Silver Charm  was the same way.” Baffert trained Silver Charm to win two-thirds of the 1997 Triple Crown en route to that colt being voted an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. Silver Charm was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Taiba in winning the Malibu made a strong pitch for an Eclipse Award himself, though Baffert declined to weigh in on the topic. Taiba’s primary competition is likely Epicenter  , who won the Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1) and Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) and ran second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1), but injured himself in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and did not finish that race.

“I don’t have a vote, and I respect the other people’s horses,” Baffert said. “It was unfortunate that Epicenter got hurt. We want it decided on the racetrack. Right now I’m just enjoying this.”

Photo: Benoit Photo

The winning connections of Taiba in the winners circle after capturing the Malibu

Baffert trains Taiba for Amr Zedan’s Zedan Racing Stables. Clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young, who joined Baffert in the Malibu winner’s circle, bought Taiba for Zedan. The colt cost $1.7 million at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-year-old Sale.

Bruce Ryan bred Taiba, a son of Gun Runner  Needmore Flattery , by Flatter , in Kentucky.

“He reminds me of his sire, Gun Runner,” Baffert said.

Taiba not only made headlines at the sale as the second-highest price, he then captured the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1) in only his second start after breaking his maiden in his debut by 7 1/2 lengths. Taiba won the Santa Anita Derby for Tim Yakteen, who took over the colt’s training not long before Baffert began serving a suspension stemming from a positive test by Medina Spirit , owned by Zedan, after that colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. 

Taiba finished unplaced in this year’s Kentucky Derby, and Baffert later resumed training him. The colt missed by just a head to Cyberknife   in the TVG.com Haskell Stakes (G1) and then won the Pennsylvania Derby prior to contesting the Breeders’ Cup.

“The Haskell was a tough beat,” Baffert said.

With the Malibu, Taiba is three for three at Santa Anita. Baffert was winning his fifth Malibu, following The Factor   in 2011, Shakin It Up   in 2013, McKinzie   in 2018, and Charlatan   in 2020. Smith has six victories in the race: McKinzie, Charlatan, and Taiba for Baffert, plus M One Rifle  in 2009, Shared Belief  in 2014, and Omaha Beach   in 2019.

Video: RUNHAPPY Malibu S. (G1)