Taiba’s Climb to Stardom Has Begun

With his stunning victory over a top-class field in Saturday’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, it looks as if the much heralded Taiba finally is ready to launch his career to the highest of heights with a solid enough foundation under him.~ Steve Haskin

Taiba’s Climb to Stardom Has Begun

By Steve Haskin


Did you ever get the feeling you are on a journey and everything seems to be falling into place and the farther you get the clearer the picture around you gets? But in the back of your mind there is something lurking behind you just waiting to disrupt the clarity of that picture.

Of course in this space, journeys and picture clarity often refer to the Kentucky Derby trail, which then expand to the Triple Crown trail, then to the road to the Travers Stakes, and finally to the 3-year-old championship.

In 2022, we began the journey with a deep and seemingly talented group of 3-year-olds who spent the winter sorting themselves out only to have a megaton bomb land on Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May in the form of an 80-1 longshot named Rich Strike, throwing everything into disarray and leaving the Derby trail in shambles.

That continued when the Preakness winner Early Voting failed to duplicate that form, Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal was injured and retired, and the 23-length Dwyer winner Charge It was sidelined with a foot injury. Cyberknife looked like an improving horse winning the Haskell Invitational by a head, but the picture finally became clear when the Louisiana Derby winner and hard luck Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Epicenter asserted his superiority by winning the Jim Dandy and Travers, easily defeating Cyberknife in the latter. Finally we had a clear-cut leader of the division and a sophomore threat for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But since the spring, you just had the nagging feeling that the division was not going to become clear until a late-developing lightly raced colt named Taiba caught up with the others. So he just lurked behind the pack all through the late spring and summer, popping up occasionally just to take another step forward and let everyone know he was still around and a force to be reckoned with once he found some stability and got the experience he badly needed. You just got that feeling he was going to storm onto the scene by late summer or early fall, so in the meantime you praised the consistent, hard-knocking Epicenter, who had vaulted to the top of the division, but with one eye on that brilliant chestnut who was biding his time traveling around the country, while popping up sporadically.

Following his breakout performance in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby it is time to take a look at the exceptional, odd, and extremely brief career of Taiba. You knew right from the start this was a colt capable of making startling transformations. As a yearling, he sold for $140,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October sale. So there was nothing to suggest he was anything special. But only five months later he sold at the Fasig-Tipton March 2-year-old sale for a whopping $1.7 million, which was more than $1.3 million over the average price of the sale.

Bob Baffert, who would eventually become his trainer, put it simply saying, “He worked fast and moved beautifully.”

Baffert was given the colt by Zedan Racing Stables, who also had Medina Spirit with Baffert, as well as Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer in partnership.

Taiba didn’t make his career debut until this past March 5, winning by 7 ½ lengths in a swift 1:09 4/5 for the six furlongs. As Baffert said, “He was very immature as a 2-year-old, so we turned him out for a couple of months.”

In an extremely bold move, he jumped all the way up to a mile and an eighth in the Santa Anita Derby, while being turned over to trainer Tim Yakteen during Baffert’s suspension for a drug positive. In only his second career start he blew past his more accomplished stablemate Messier to win by 2 ¼ lengths in 1:48 2/5. It was an unprecedented move, winning a prestigious Grade 1 stakes in such impressive fashion with only one six-furlong race behind him and doing it with a new trainer.

As bold a move as that was, it was unheard of to then run him in the Kentucky Derby with only two career starts. Based on history and common sense he had no chance to win, and although he finished 12th you could not fault him in any way, especially since he was running three lengths off a suicidal pace of :45 1/5 for the half that claimed every horse running within six lengths of the lead and set it up for Rich Strike, who rallied from dead-last in the 20-horse field.

When Baffert’s suspension was over, Taiba was sent back to him, but he wouldn’t run again for another 2 ½ months. Still a work in progress with only three career starts and having to travel cross-country, he ran a super race in the Haskell to be beaten a head by Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife, who got through on the rail to just nip him on the wire in a track-record 1:46 1/5 for the mile and an eighth.

By now, most people could only imagine what this colt would be capable of once he built some sort of racing foundation while continuing to progress and improve with every race. They found out two months later when he made his third trip back east last Saturday and drew off to a dominating three-length victory over the hard-knocking Zandon and Cyberknife in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. That prompted Baffert to call him “the best 3-year-old.”

It wasn’t the margin or the solid time of 1:48 3/5 that was most impressive. It was that big stride of his that gobbled up the ground and allowed him to blow by top-class horses in the stretch with little effort. It was clear the real Taiba finally was emerging.

He still has to get past Epicenter to earn the title of “best 3-year-old,” but for anyone who has seen him run and work and how lightly raced he still is with only five career starts, they are well aware it is going to take a super effort by Epicenter in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to hold on to the top spot in the division. Of course with older horses Flightline and Life is Good squaring off for Older Horse and Horse of the Year honors there should be two separate battles going on. Epicenter has the advantage of having already won at 1 ¼ miles impressively in the Travers and has also matured into a top quality horse, but with Taiba we’re talking about a colt with untapped talent who has turned in outstanding performances while still basically a baby who is still learning.

While Taiba has speed in his female family through the sprinter Phone Trick, he is by the white-hot sire Gun Runner, out of a mare by Flatter, a sire of top-class distance horses. Taiba’s fifth generation tail-female sire Grand Rights is a half-brother to French Derby winner Caracolero, whose dam Betty Lorraine is a half-sister to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince.

So, will Flightline still look like a freak against Life is Good? Is Taiba close enough to superstardom to wrest control of the 3-year-old division from Epicenter? Does he or Epicenter actually have a chance to be competitive against Flightline, something no horse has been able to do? It doesn’t seem to matter who else runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The chances of someone beating all four of these horses seem extremely remote.

From what we’ve seen so far from Taiba and how much room there still is for improvement who knows what we’re going to see next year when he actually has some experience and a foundation under him. It certainly should be something to look forward to.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Andrew

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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