The only 3-year-old male to win three Grade 1 races last year, many thought that Taiba should have been named a champion at the end of 2022. He was not. The award instead went to Epicenter.
With his Eclipse Award rival now retired, Taiba has become the early favorite to be not only America’s best older horse, but also the best dirt horse in the world. His quest will begin Saturday halfway across the world when he headlines the $20 million Saudi Cup (G1) at King Abdulaziz Racecourse.
The voters might have not awarded his 3-year-old season with a championship, but it was a remarkable run for the son of Gun Runner. Trained by Bob Baffert, Taiba was that rare horse able to live up to a lofty price tag, and he did it all in a very short amount of time.
Purchased for $1.7 million as a 2-year-old in training in March 2021, it took him time to make it to the races. Just one year ago, Taiba was still an unraced maiden. When he finally made it to the races, he made an impression.
Sent off as a 1-2 favorite, Taiba entered the starting gate on March 5 for a six-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita. He dueled for the lead through fast early fractions before exerting his superiority over his competition. He was in command as they straightened out in the stretch and cruised home to a 7 1/2-length debut win in racehorse time of 1:09.97.
With the steepest of possible learning curves, the Zedan Racing Stables-owned chestnut went straight from that maiden sprint to the Santa Anita Derby (G1) at nine furlongs five weeks later. But first there was business to be done.
His Hall of Fame trainer had been suspended from the Kentucky Derby because of a medication violation found in Medina Spirit after he crossed the wire first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Also owned by Zedan Racing, he was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, and seven months later he collapsed and died at the end of a workout at Santa Anita.
With Baffert unable to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points, Taiba was transferred to the barn of Tim Yakteen. In his first start for his new trainer, the inexperienced talent rolled away from the highly regarded Kentucky Derby contenders Messier and Forbidden Kingdom.
The easy 2 1/4-length win in the Santa Anita Derby was eye opening. Having run 1:48.46 in his second career start demonstrated what kind of talent Taiba had. It also earned him a spot in the 2022 Kentucky Derby.
No horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby with as little experience as Taiba had. Few have ever tried. Throw in a ridiculously fast pace, which did him no favors, and his fate was sealed on the first Saturday in May. He faded out and finished 12th of 20. The fact that he was one of the favorites at 5-1 with only two lifetime starts speaks volumes of his talent.
Given time after the Derby disappointment and back in the Baffert barn, Taiba came back to be arguably the best 3-year-old in training the second half of the season. He just missed winning his second Grade 1 race when second by a head in a very fast edition of the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth, only his fourth career race.
From there, Taiba only moved forward. Made the favorite against a deep field in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), he was a powerful three-length winner. That win earned him a shot in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and a first attempt against older horses.
Although he was no match for the mighty Flightline, Taiba accounted for himself quite well with a third-place finish. Perhaps in hopes of winning an Eclipse Award, he ran for a seventh time on Dec. 26.
Cutting back from 10 furlongs to seven can be a tricky proposition, but it was not for the heavy favorite. Sent off at prohibitive 2-5 odds, he ran like he was bet and rolled home by 4 1/4 lengths in the Malibu Stakes (G1) for his third Grade 1 victory.
With the versatility to win at any distance and proven for class throughout a sharp ascent among American 3-year-olds last year, Taiba looks poised to be the big horse in 2023.
It all starts Saturday, when he goes for the riches offered in Saudi Arabia. Regardless of whether you believe our best horses should do so, we’ll all be watching what Taiba does overseas. The one turn and about nine-furlong distance of the race should be a good way to start his career as an older horse.
After that and a likely run in next month’s Dubai World Cup (G1), we’ll have to see how he comes back to American racing. Looking at all he accomplished in a short amount of time and his obvious potential to be better at 4, it promises to be a very interesting season for Taiba.