After inexperience arguably cost him in his Haskell (G1) near-miss, Zedan Racing Stables’ Taiba was a savvier operator in Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1). The 7-5 favorite didn’t flinch in his inside stalking trip, angled out, and powered home by three lengths. In the process, he gained revenge on Haskell winner Cyberknife, who was a non-threatening third.
Taiba was giving Bob Baffert his fourth Penn Derby win, after Bayern (2014), champion West Coast (2017), and McKinzie (2018). All three of his predecessors advanced to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) –with Bayern turning the double and West Coast placing third – and that’s the next port of call.
Nudged by Mike Smith to secure forward position at a speed-friendly Parx, Taiba deferred only to White Abarrio who was hustling from the far outside post 11. But the favorite did enough to cross over himself from post 8 and settle into a ground-saving spot.
White Abarrio rattled off fractions of :23.27, :47.21, and 1:11.06 on the fast track. Simplification and We the People moved up to track on the outside, while Taiba was comfortably on hold in fourth. Unlike the Haskell, where he wasn’t happy down on the inside and lost crucial position, he stood his ground here.
On the far turn, Smith got off the fence and swung to the outside, and Taiba put the race away. He rallied past Simplification and White Abarrio, took command, and completed a rapid Grade 1 double for sire Gun Runner, whose daughter Society rolled on the front end in the Cotillion (G1).
Deep-closing Zandon, in contrast, stayed on the inside to offer his stretch rally, in a move vaguely reminiscent of Cyberknife’s cutting the corner in the Haskell. But the 3.30-1 second choice didn’t kick on as strongly, and Taiba did, to pad his margin while finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67.
Cyberknife, the 4.10-1 third choice, made some belated headway another 3 3/4 lengths back. Edging Simplification for third, he contributed to sire Gun Runner’s big day. White Abarrio faded to fifth. B Dawk, last early, finished with interest for sixth. Next came Naval Aviator, We the People, Skippylongstocking, Tawny Port, and Icy Storm.
Taiba, a son of Ohio-bred celebrity Needmore Flattery (by Flatter), is now a millionaire with $1,236,200 in earnings from his 5-3-1-0 line. The $1.7 million Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream juvenile purchase burst onto the Triple Crown trail at virtually the last minute. After capturing his six-furlong debut on Mar. 5, he handled the class and distance hike to beat Messier in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). The Kentucky Derby (G1) was a bridge too far on the learning curve, as Taiba turned in his only unplaced effort in 12th, but the Haskell showed that he was poised to move forward.
“He is getting better and better,” Baffert said. “He is a horse that has been slowly improving. He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one. He proved today he is a good horse. The main thing is that he ran his race. I was a little worried when he was down on the inside because he doesn’t like being on the inside. When he tipped to the outside, he just took off.”
Gary Young, who sourced Taiba as owner Amr Zedan’s bloodstock agent, also commented on the colt’s progression.
“We thought an effort like this was going to be what we got,” Young said. “He was much more comfortable down inside horses today than he was in the Haskell. Once he got him outside coming to the top of the stretch the race was over. He has a really good turn of foot. He was good in the paddock, good in the post parade, kind of what we expected.
“We always said that this horse has a lot of room for improvement,” Young added, “and we think next year he will be even better…and he is pretty damn good this year.”
The connections of Cyberknife noted that he didn’t perform up to his best.
“He didn’t seem to really like the track,” jockey Florent Geroux said. “He was never really on the bridle. He was way farther back than he usually is, kind of throwing his head at the kickback. He finished nice at the end, but I didn’t like the way he was traveling all around.”
“I’m not certain this is his track,” trainer Brad Cox also said. “He galloped over it a few days, but it is what it is. No excuses today. He was third-best, honestly. When they broke, they got away from him a little bit, but it is what it is. He was maybe a little further back than we expected. He had to move him early to get into position, and obviously the winner was kind of gone at that point. Overall, it was a good effort. He ran on, I just wish he was running on in front.”
A Breeders’ Cup rematch with Taiba might not be on the cards.
“I don’t know. It’s real tricky,” Cox said of a potential target for Cyberknife. “It’s a bad year to have a good horse is what I say.”
“It’s possible,” he responded when asked about the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). “We’ll look at that. That might be better option (than the Classic). But we’ll let the dust settle and see what everyone else is doing, see how he comes out of it and go from there. You never know.”
Baffert confirmed that the Classic is on Taiba’s agenda, while recognizing the tall task of facing an exceptional older horse or two.
“If all is good, we are going to point to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. You know, horse racing changes day by day. I’m not looking forward to running against Life Is Good and Flightline. Those are two very fast horses.”
The Classic would also pit Taiba against the leader of the three-year-old male division, Epicenter, whom he hasn’t met outside of the Kentucky Derby. Baffert believes that his Penn Derby ranks up there.
“You want to be the best three-year-old. This was the spot that puts him right there,” Baffert said. “He is just a tough horse. He is powerful. He is a heavily muscled horse and you would not think he would run this far. He has speed but he will sit behind horses. He comes running and he is just a fighter.”