November 3, 2022: Taiba, trained by Bob Baffert, exercises in preparation for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky on November 3, 2022. Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup
In 2020, Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Authentic became the 10th 3-year-old male trained by Bob Baffert to win a divisional Eclipse Award. On a blockbuster opening day card at Santa Anita Monday, a potential 11th such champion could emerge for the Hall of Fame trainer in the Grade 1, $300,000 Malibu.
There is a case to be made for the honor if the Baffert-trained Taiba were to prevail as expected in the seven-furlong feature for sophomores on opening day. A win would make Taiba the only 3-year-old male this season with three Grade 1 triumphs of the season, adding to his previous scores in the Santa Anita Derby and Pennsylvania Derby. Taiba also nearly bagged another Grade 1 this summer in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, when he came up just a head short to Cyberknife.
Meanwhile, the presumed frontrunner in the division is Eastern-based Epicenter, who was injured in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 5 and subsequently retired. He had a single Grade 1 tally this season, which came in the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
But helping to boost the case for Epicenter are wins in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and G2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, G2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga, plus runner-up finishes in both the G1 Kentucky Derby and G1 Preakness Stakes.
On Wednesday at Clocker’s Corner, Baffert opted for diplomacy when it comes to a potential championship for Taiba.
“I don’t want to get into that discussion. I don’t have a vote so I don’t know,” he said.
In the Malibu, Taiba will be sprinting for the first time since a six-furlong debut win at Santa Anita in March. He most recently was beaten just a half length for second after a troubled start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic going 1 1/4 miles, which was won by undefeated superstar Flightline.
“He missed the break, sort of slipped leaving there and he lost position,” Baffert said of Taiba’s Classic run. “We wanted him like where Epicenter was (fifth after a quarter mile), but Epicenter beat us to the spot.”
Taiba would improve his position under Mike Smith in the Classic and while no match for Flightline, he was just edged for runner-up by the older horse Olympiad.
“We were hoping we would run second. I knew trying to beat Flightline would be difficult,” Baffert said.
A $1.7 million auction purchase last year, Taiba has worked four times at Santa Anita since the Breeders’ Cup and shows two bullet drills on the tab. He blazed a half mile in 46.6 seconds on Dec. 3 and came back with another bullet on Monday when completing five furlongs in 59.6 seconds.
Baffert indicated he was not overly concerned about the cutback to seven furlongs.
“When he broke his maiden he went nine and change (officially 1:09.8). He’s a fast horse,” Baffert added.
Joining Taiba in the Malibu starting gate for Baffert will be Messier. Sidelined following a 15th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Messier returned in a Nov. 5 allowance at Keeneland where he dueled on the lead for a half mile and then faded. Baffert said the Empire Maker colt bled in that effort.
“(Jockey John Velazquez) pulled him up and he had a little bit (of blood) on the nose,” Baffert said. “I don’t know why as he had never done that before. But he’s come back and worked and hasn’t bled, so I’m not sure why it happened.”
Similar to that allowance race, Messier in the Malibu will race without the anti-bleeding medication Lasix as it is not permitted in California stakes races.
The Malibu is carded as the 10th race on Monday’s 11-race opening-day program.
- Forbidden Kingdom, Juan Hernandez (3-1);
- Messier, John Velazquez (6-1);
- Apprehend, Ramon Vazquez (8-1);
- Nakatomi, Tyler Gaffalione (10-1);
- Hoist the Gold, Joel Rosario (12-1);
- Taiba, Mike Smith (6-5);
- Perfect Flight, Ricardo Santana Jr. (12-1);
- Strava, Flavien Prat (15-1);
- Straight No Chaser, Edwin Maldonaldo (20-1).