Second-time starter Taiba pulls off shocker with Santa Anita Derby win

Taiba and jockey Mike Smith race to victory in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.
Taiba and jockey Mike Smith qualified for the Kentucky Derby by wining the Grade I $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.
(Benoit Photo via Associated Press)

Trainer Tim Yakteen was in a tough spot, replacing a Hall of Fame trainer to qualify some of his horses for the Kentucky Derby. If he does it, the credit will be given to previous trainer Bob Baffert. If he doesn’t, it will be his fault.

What happened Saturday in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby very few saw coming, leaving even Yakteen in a good state of disbelief. Taiba, making just his second start, came strong on the outside and swept past stablemate Messier to win by 2¼ lengths as both horses qualified for the Kentucky Derby.

In this case, a new betting strategy was born, the “other Yakteen.”

After the race, all the attention was on what the horse accomplished rather than the person who trained him.


Yakteen did not want to enter Taiba, a $1.7-million purchase, in this race because of his inexperience. He was overruled by owner Amr Zedan, who also owned Medina Spirit and two weeks ago won the $12-million Dubai World Cup with Country Grammer.

“Amr made it very clear, he overruled me and overruled [bloodstock agent] Gary Young,” Yakteen said. “We told him the challenges that might take place by doing something like this. But he had all the confidence in the world in this horse and wanted to give the Derby another go. That’s what he’s in the game for and he took the gamble. It was a huge gamble and the horse paid off.”

The race was supposed to be a showdown between Messier, winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes by 15 lengths, and Forbidden Kingdom, winner of the San Felipe Stakes by 5¾. And it started out that way with Forbidden Kingdom going to the lead and Messier setting up just on the outside of him. Entering the far turn, Messier started to close the gap and by the middle of the turn had pulled even.

It then became clear that Forbidden Kingdom, the even money favorite, was having trouble negotiating the 1-1/8-mile distance and he faded out of contention. Expectations were that Messier would cruise to the wire, but Taiba proved more than good enough and just kept gaining and passed him in the final strides.

“It’s hard to verbalize what he just accomplished,” Yakteen said. “You don’t see it at his level unless you are exceptionally, exceptionally gifted. Messier ran absolutely lights out. So that was a strong horse to collar in your second start at a mile-and-an-eighth with only a [six-furlong] race under your belt.”

Taiba and jockey Mike Smith, outside, overpower Messier and jockey John Velazquez.
Taiba and jockey Mike Smith, outside, overpower Messier and jockey John Velazquez to win the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.
(Benoit Photo via Associated Press)

Taiba paid $10.60, $3.60 and $3.20. Messier was second followed, 10 lengths back, by Happy Jack, Armagnac, Win The Day and Forbidden Kingdom.

Zedan also made the decision to have Mike Smith, the Hall of Famer who rode Justify to a Triple Crown, as Tabia’s jockey.

“When one comes along like that, he showed he was really good,” Smith said. “He showed how special he is. He belongs with anyone. He just recovers really well. I’m not getting any younger and as I get older, I have felt that something good was going to happen. This just may lead to that. The sky’s the limit.”

Saturday was the final weekend of the major qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby. Mo Donegal won the Wood Memorial in New York and Zandon won the Blue Grass Stakes in Kentucky.

KHRC taped phone calls with trainer Bob Baffert after he learned of Medina Spirit’s positive test. Transcripts show Baffert’s reaction.

April 3, 2022

Taiba earned 100 points and Messier picked up 40 points. The current cutoff for the starting gate at Churchill Downs is 40 points with the tiebreaker going to graded stakes earnings, which allows Messier to easily qualify. There is only one qualifying race, the Lexington Stakes next Saturday at Keeneland, but it is worth only a maximum of 20 points. Forbidden Kingdom, based on winning the San Felipe Stakes in March, has enough qualifying points, but it’s unclear if trainer Richard Mandella would want to enter him in the longer Kentucky Derby.

Yakteen picked up a few of Baffert’s best 3-year-olds after the Hall of Fame trainer was banned from gaining Kentucky Derby qualifying points because Medina Spirit tested positive for an anti-inflammatory banned on race day after winning last year’s Kentucky Derby. Baffert began a 90-day suspension ordered by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and honored by all other states.


Yakteen, a former assistant for Baffert, has had the horses about two weeks.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Yakteen said. “It’s taken a bit to bring it all in. [But Saturday] is a pretty exciting moment. I’m trying to take it all in. Overwhelmed is an understatement.”

Now things escalate for Yakteen with two Kentucky Derby starters.