By Brian DiDonato
Saturday's GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby was billed mainly as a match-up of back-to-back Grade II winner Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah) and 15-length GIII Robert B. Lewis S. romper and 'TDN Rising Star' Messier (Empire Maker), but the former dropped out of it in the lane after setting the pace, and $1.7-million FTFMAR buy Taiba (Gun Runner) ran by fellow Tim Yakteen trainee Messier to post the 4-1 upset and stamp his ticket to the GI Kentucky Derby.
Having earned 'Rising Star' status himself and a gaudy 103 Beyer Speed Figure when airing by 7 1/2 lengths sprinting here Mar. 5 while a member of the Bob Baffert barn, Taiba was one of three Santa Anita Derby runners transferred to Yakteen from the suspended Baffert. The winner carries the same silks as ill-fated Medina Spirit (Protonico), whose betamethasone positive in last year's GI Kentucky Derby sparked Hall of Famer Baffert's recent troubles. Zedan and Baffert are also part of the connections responsible for last month's G1 Dubai World Cup hero Country Grammer (Tonalist).
Forbidden Kingdom–perhaps a slightly surprising favorite at even-money over 13-10 Messier–bobbled a tiny bit from the gate but took early command as expected. Taiba was away second fastest, but Messier moved up inside of him into the first bend before Forbidden Kingdom floated them both slightly wide. Mike Smith on Taiba elected to drop in and save some ground down the backside, as Forbidden Kingdom doled out splits of :22.75 and :46.70 with Messier only applying token pressure. Messier turned up the heat after six panels in 1:10.97, and Taiba drafted just in behind them while clearly full of run. Forbidden Kingdom was out of gas at the quarter pole and offered little resistance to Messier. Messier looked briefly like he might shut the door on Taiba as that one bobbled while switching leads, but Taiba soon leveled off, displaying the impressive stride he had just over a year ago at Gulfstream to cruise past Messier under a hands-and-heels ride. Messier was 2 1/4 lengths back, but another 10 clear of Happy Jack (Oxbow), who narrowly spoiled an all-Yakteen trifecta over Armagnac (Quality Road).
“When one comes along like that, he showed he was really good,” said Smith, who has now won four of the last five Santa Anita Derbies and five overall. “He didn't really get away very well. In the first turn, I didn't want to get in the way. I wasn't in any hurry. I felt the others would do the dirty work for me and it set up just fine. He showed just how special he is. He belongs with anyone. He just recovers really well. I'm not getting any younger. As I get older, I have felt that something special is going to happen. This just may lead to that. The sky's the limit.”
Yakteen was visibly nervous before the race, and had sent out heavy favorite Adare Manor (Uncle Mo)–also a Baffert transfer–to be narrowly upset at short odds in the GII Santa Anita Oaks earlier on the card.
“You could have poured me out of a shot glass earlier, but these two horses represented me unbelievably in this race and I'm just absolutely thrilled, floored with the effort that Taiba put forth,” he said. “That was a sensational race, he's just a super horse.”
Taiba picked up 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for the win, while Messier–previously ineligible for points during his earlier exploits for Baffert–earned 40 points.
Saturday, Santa Anita Park
RUNHAPPY SANTA ANITA DERBY-GI, $750,500, Santa Anita, 4-9, 3yo, 1 1/8m, 1:48.67, ft.
1–TAIBA, 124, c, 3, by Gun Runner
1st Dam: Needmore Flattery (MSW, $732,103), by
2nd Dam: Kiosk, by Left Banker
3rd Dam: Phone Switch, by Phone Trick
1ST BLACK TYPE WIN, 1ST GRADED STAKES WIN, 1ST GRADE I WIN. 'TDN RISING STAR'. ($140,000 Ylg '20 FTKOCT; $1,700,000 2yo '21 FTFMAR). O-Zedan Racing Stables, Inc.; B-Bruce C Ryan (KY); T-Tim Yakteen; J-Mike E. Smith. $450,000. Lifetime Record: 2-2-0-0, $490,200. Werk Nick Rating: A+++. *Triple Plus*. Click for the eNicks report & 5-cross pedigree.
2–Messier, 124, c, 3, Empire Maker–Checkered Past, by Smart Strike. 1ST G1 BLACK TYPE. 'TDN RISING STAR'. ($470,000 Ylg '20 FTKSEL). O-SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital LLC, Catherine M. Donovan, Golconda Stable, Siena Farm LLC; B-Sam-Son Farm (ON); T-Tim Yakteen. $150,000.
3–Happy Jack, 124, c, 3, Oxbow–Tapitstry, by Tapit. 1ST G1 BLACK TYPE. ($0 RNA Wlg '19 KEENOV). O/B-Calumet Farm; T-Doug F. O'Neill. $90,000.
Margins: 2 1/4, 10, NK. Odds: 4.30, 1.30, 26.80.
Also Ran: Armagnac, Win the Day, Forbidden Kingdom.
Click for the Equibase.com chart, the TJCIS.com PPs or the free Equineline.com catalogue-style pedigree. VIDEO, sponsored by TVG.
Taiba was the second topper at the Fasig Gulfstream sale off a powerful :10 1/5 move, and he cost exactly double that of Gun Runner's next-priciest 2-year-old, fellow future Baffert pupil Flying Drummer. Gun Runner, whose first crop of yearlings cost up to $775,000 and averaged the most among freshmen at $246,413, more than lived up to the auction hype when his runners started to hit the track. He was represented by two Grade I winners last year–including champion 2-year-old filly Echo Zulu–plus two other graded winners while breaking the record for progeny earnings by a freshman.
The Three Chimneys resident has been on a tear in the last round of Derby and GI Kentucky Oaks preps–Echo Zulu resurfaced to annex the GII Fair Grounds Oaks on seasonal debut Mar. 26; then Cyberknife took the GI Arkansas Derby last Saturday on the same day Beguine was second in the GIII Fantasy S. and Running Legacy was third in the GII Gulfstream Park Oaks. GIII Wither S. winner was beaten a neck Saturday at Aqueduct in the GII Wood Memorial S., two races before Shotgun Hottie was third in the GIII Gazelle S.
Overall, the 2017 Horse of the Year has sired four highest-level winners, seven graded winners and 11 stakes winners.
Flatter, meanwhile, is the broodmare sire of four U.S. graded winners–including last year's GI Darley Alcibiades S. heroine Juju's Map (Liam's Map)–and another MG1SW in South America.
Taiba's dam Needmore Flattery racked up more than $730,000 having never earned better than a 75 Beyer Speed Figure competing mostly in Ohio-bred company. Her first foal is a still-unraced 4-year-old son of Uncle Mo, and she sold to Leopoldo Fernández Pujals's Yeguada Centurion for $195,000 at KEENOV '19 before being exported to France and foaling a filly by Uncle Mo.
Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.