ARCADIA — Jockeys Juan Hernandez and Frankie Dettori, along with trainer Bob Baffert, will forever hold fond memories of Monday’s opening day at Santa Anita in front of 41,446.
The crowd, Santa Anita’s largest on opening day since 46,514 showed up in 2016, saw Hernandez win four races, Dettori claim three victories and Baffert win five races in one day for the second time in his career.
Baffert’s biggest victory came in the day’s showcase event, the $300,000 Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds, as 2-5 favorite Taiba made a last-ditch bid for an Eclipse Award as the top 3-year-old male of 2022 with a 4¼-length victory over Forbidden Kingdom.
“I knew we were coming in here with a good hand and just hoping that they’d show up,” said Baffert, who said he previously won five races in one day at Los Alamitos. “You have 14 horses in and you’re thinking, ‘I hope they’re all ready and prepared right.’ It just shows the quality of horses we have.”
Baffert didn’t want to weigh in on Taiba’s chances for an Eclipse. He says he’ll leave that up to the voters.
“I don’t get a vote, and I hate to talk about somebody else’s horse,” he said. “I respect the other people’s horses. There are good horses in there. It was unfortunate Epicenter got hurt (in the Breeders’ Cup Classic). You want to decide it on the race track.”
But he’s not hesitant to talk about Taiba’s talent.
“Today’s race showed how good he is. He’s the real deal, I know that,” Baffert said. “Today, he looked so much better than at the Breeders’ Cup (when he finished third in the Classic). You can tell he’s starting to fill out, he’s growing. He reminds me of his sire Gun Runner.
“The further the better for him. I think he’s just getting better and better. It was a tough beat in the Haskell (second behind Cyberknife), but the horse has figured it out. He’s learned how to run.”
Forbidden Kingdom set the pace in the 7-furlong race, carving out splits of 22.18 and 44.38, until Taiba took the lead at the head of the stretch, put away 15-1 longshot Straight No Chaser and then cruised to his fourth victory in seven starts while finishing in 1: 21.75. He improved his career bankroll to $1,956,200 with the winner’s share of $180,000.
Baffert was hoping for better from Messier, second behind Taiba in this year’s Santa Anita Derby, but he finished eighth in the nine-horse field with John Velazquez in the saddle.
“He was down there on the inside and took dirt,” he said. “Johnny was gonna not get caught up and we were hoping he would come running, but it was a tough spot for him.”
Said winning jockey Mike Smith: “That horse is like a bike and you have to pedal. Going long you don’t have to do as much, but I knew that going short it would be tough.”
Baffert, who also had graded victories with Fun to Dream in the Grade I La Brea Stakes and Country Grammer in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes, said Taiba is a deceiving horse.
“If you watch him in the mornings, he’ll never get the clocker’s eye,” he said. “He’ll surprise you in the afternoons. Silver Charm (1997 Kentucky Derby winner) was that way, that kind of a horse.”
Richard Mandella, who trains Forbidden Kingdom, said the son of American Pharoah had trouble in the race.
“I think he got rattled when he left the gate tardy today,” he said. “It unsettled him. He came on really good at the end. The winner is a very good horse.”
Hoist the Gold, a 29-1 longshot, finished third, a neck in front of Nakatomi on a day when Santa Anita set an opening-day record for all-sources handle.