Maiden victory to Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby isn’t a common path for a thoroughbred, but Taiba owner Amr Zaden had purchased the colt for $1.7 million and knew it was the only way to make the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Tim Yakteen wasn’t so sure.
“We’ve seen horses break their maiden … and come back and maybe be taken out of their league too soon and have their careers ahead of them become more challenging,” Yakteen said.
The gamble paid off, as Taiba charged late to win the Santa Anita Derby on April 9 by 2 ¼ lengths and qualify for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
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At 12-1 odds, Taiba is the sixth choice in the morning line and has become a polarizing consideration among bettors – freak with a solid shot to win or too inexperienced to make a serious run?
Yakteen is simply pleased Taiba will get a chance after his previous hesitation.
“Amr is a very educated individual and was able to understand what we were articulating and our concerns, the possible consequences of doing what he did,” Yakteen said. “He obviously, I think, made a very good choice. I’m reaping the benefits of it – as well as he is – by making the decision to move forward and run the horse.”
If Taiba can pull off the victory, he’ll be ending another of the Kentucky Derby’s “curses.”
In 2018, Justify broke the “Curse of Apollo” by winning the Kentucky Derby. Justify didn’t race as a 2-year-old, and Apollo (1882) had been the only horse to win the Run for the Roses with such a history.
What is the ‘Curse of Leonatus?’
With only two career races, Taiba will look to break the “Curse of Leonatus.” In 1883, Leonatus won the Kentucky Derby with only two previous races in his career and is still the only horse to accomplish the feat with such little prior seasoning.
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According to The Courier Journal report from that 1883 victory, Leonatus “came on as he liked, never being crowded, winning by three open lengths a race in which he was never headed. … There was nothing exciting about the finish.”
Yakteen is well aware of the history Taiba is up against.
“The challenge comes … with the gates opening and the horse not having the experience of being surrounded by other horses,” Yakteen said. “I think running style plays into it. Foundation plays into it. As we’ve seen, there used to be this extended curse where you had to race as a 2-year-old, and now we’re seeing that less and less. The bottom line is great horses materialize at different times throughout their career.”
What’s Taiba’s history?
A son of Gun Runner, Taiba was first sold as a yearling for $140,000 and then was purchased for $1.7 million by Zaden in March of 2021 at the Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-Year-Olds in Training sale.
According to Equibase.com, Taiba showed a consistent work pattern from April to June of 2021 and then took five months off. Yakteen, who recently took over Taiba’s training from Bob Baffert, said he didn’t know why Taiba took a break.
Taiba returned to the work tab last November at Los Alamitos and finally made his racing debut March 5, winning a maiden race at Santa Anita Park by 7 ½ lengths. That led to his 2 ¼-length victory over stablemate Messier in the Santa Anita Derby.
Taiba’s Beyer Speed Figures for the maiden victory (103) and Santa Anta Derby win (102) are two of the top four among all 3-year-olds in North America this year.
“I figured he probably has the foundation to get a mile and maybe his class could get him the rest of the way if we were good enough to be within striking distance heading for home,” jockey Mike Smith said of the Santa Anita Derby. “What really surprised me was the way he finished. Not only did he get the mile-and-an-eighth, he got it with much more left in there. I think if the race would have go on a little farther, he looked like he would have drawn away.”
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Smith also was the jockey for Justify, who went on to win the Triple Crown.
“Justify was a bigger colt, but this is a nice-sized colt as well,” Smith said. “The way he covers ground is so fluid, his balance his so nice – a lot like Justify. And his cruising speed is nice. This colt is quicker than I expected.”
It remains to be seen whether Taiba can shine again when facing 19 other horses and the massive Kentucky Derby crowd at Churchill.
The 56-year-old Smith – winner of two Kentucky Derbys – knows he’ll have to make all the right moves in order to end the “Curse of Leonatus.”
“Hopefully the crowd won’t bother him,” Smith said. ““If I can get him into a nice, happy rhythm early on and a good comfortable place where he doesn’t have to overcome a whole lot, he has the kind of ability that can pull it off.”
Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; [email protected]; Twitter: @KentuckyDerbyCJ.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism