A field of nine 3-year-olds is expected to run in the $300,000, Grade 1 Runhappy Malibu Stakes Dec. 26, the traditional opening-day feature of the Santa Anita Park winter-spring meeting. It is a strong group, led by Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby winner Taiba, a colt trained by Bob Baffert who’s coming into the Malibu off a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Baffert also trains Messier, who won the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes this past spring before finishing second to Taiba in the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, but who has only 15th- and 11th-place finishes since that race. Nakatomi is another strong contender, having won the Bowman Mill Stakes in 2021 as a 2-year-old and in his most recent start posting a strong win at 6 ½ furlongs, a slightly shorter distance than the Malibu’s seven furlongs. Forbidden Kingdom won the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes in January over Santa Anita’s track at the distance of the Malibu. He returned from nearly six months off this fall and he finished third in his most recent race. Perfect Flight just won the Zia Park Derby last month and hopes to do as well at this higher class level. Straight No Chaser and Strava both won allowance races in their most recent starts and are two more contenders hoping to step up into graded stakes competition and compete effectively. Apprehend was second behind Perfect Flight in the Zia Park Derby and may be a factor against these horses. Hoist the Gold rounds out the field, coming into the race off a fourth-place effort in the Steel Valley Sprint Stakes last month and a runner-up finish in the Perryville Stakes prior to that.
Nakatomi enters this year’s Malibu Stakes off a career-best effort at a slightly shorter distance last month at Keeneland. In that race, Nakatomi relaxed in third in the early stages off a fast pace and waited until the field straightened for home. Zipping clear by two lengths with an eighth of a mile to run, he held off the much more mature 6-year-old Endorsed, who has earned more than $700,000 in his career. Nakatomi’s effort earned him a 105 Equibase Speed Figure which matches up nicely with the top contenders in the field, and it is likely to be improved upon as this will be his third start since returning from a three-month layoff near the end of September. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione, who has ridden Nakatomi to his last three wins, comes in from Florida to ride. It is important to note trainer Wesley Ward shipped Nakatomi in from his home base in Kentucky a couple of weeks back to get him familiar with the Santa Anita surface, giving him two very nice five-furlong workouts. They should set this horse up for a new career-best effort good enough to win the Malibu.
Forbidden Kingdom is the horse Nakatomi, as well as the other seven, have to catch to win. This is because in all eight of his races to date, Forbidden Kingdom has led after a quarter mile. He’s won three of those rather easily including the similar San Vicente Stakes last January with a then career-best 106 figure. After winning the two-turn San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita this past March, Forbidden Kingdom was a poor sixth in the Santa Anita Derby behind Taiba. Rested nearly six months and allowed to mature, Forbidden Kingdom returned in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship versus older horses for the first time but faded to fifth after battling head-and-head for the opening half-mile on very fast fractions. Returning on Nov. 20, once again Forbidden Kingdom got the early lead, this time holding it until mid-stretch when he was passed by a pair of older runners and ended up third. Since then he’s put in some scintillating morning drills which suggest Juan Hernandez, the only jockey who has ever ridden the colt, will put him on the lead where he can relax nicely. From there on out it just may be a matter of holding on, and if Forbidden Kingdom improves off his last-race 107 figure he may do just that.
Taiba is highly likely to be the betting favorite in this year’s Malibu based on his third-place finish behind Flightline last month in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That effort earned a career-best 115 figure which is the best in the field. Prior to that against his own age group (as he’s facing in the Malibu), Taiba won the Pennsylvania Derby with a 114 figure. Since winning his debut in March at six furlongs, Taiba has only raced in two-turn races, but considering how he’s been training Taiba must be respected as a contender to win this race. We should also note Taiba is trained by Bob Baffert, who has won this race twice in the past four years (McKinzie in 2018 and Charlatan in 2020).
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Apprehend (104), Hoist the Gold (105), Messier (107), Perfect Flight (101), Straight No Chaser (101) and Strava (105).
Win contenders, in preference/probability order:
John R. Velazquez
Golconda Stable, Madaket Stables LLC, SF Racing LLC, Siena Farm LLC, Starlight Racing, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Donovan, Catherine, Masterson, Robert E. and Schoenfarber, Jay A.