There is something about opening day at Santa Anita that still excites Southern California. The traditional day after Christmas start drew a big crowd, big names and big expectations, at least for the moment.
There is no bigger name in horse racing than trainer Bob Baffert, who even makes news when he’s not running horses but breeding them. He punctuated his role at the top of the sport Monday with three graded stakes wins — and five total.
Taiba, trained by Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, laid an arguable claim to the Eclipse Award for best 3-year-old male by winning the Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes. He is the only 3-year-old that has won three Grade 1s this year.
Baffert also won the Grade 2 $200,000 San Antonio Stakes with Country Grammer. Even though Baffert trains the 5-year-old, it was his jockey Frankie Dettori who received all the attention.
Considered the best jockey in Europe, Dettori has joined the Santa Anita jockey colony at least until April. Dettori even did his signature leap off the horse in the winner’s circle after Country Grammer’s victory. He recreated the jump two more times Monday.
Baffert was the winner in the Grade 1 $300,000 La Brea Stakes with Fun To Dream in easily the feel-good story of the day. Baffert bred the horse. His wife, Jill, is a part-owner.
“Taiba was the cherry on top,” Baffert said but avoided any talk about an Eclipse Award.
“I don’t get a vote,” he said of the awards that are selected by the media and National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. “I like to respect other people’s horses. … You want to decide it on the racetrack. I’m just enjoying this. It was a difficult year but that just shows you the clientele and the staff I have.”
The difficult part for the hall-of-fame trainer was a 90-day suspension when Medina Spirit tested positive in last year’s Kentucky Derby for a legal medication, but not legal on race day.
Baffert is currently litigating the case but served his suspension anyway. He is trying to overturn his two-year ban from Churchill Downs and restore Medina Spirit’s win in the Derby.
Epicenter is considered the other top horse in the 3-year-old male division. He finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and won the Travers Stakes. Both Epicenter and Taiba ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses. Taiba finished third as Epicenter suffered an injury and didn’t finish the race. He has been retired.
The seven-furlong Malibu is considered a tough race because it’s too long to be a sprint and too short to be a route. Taiba broke alertly and Smith put him in fourth at the start. At the half-mile mark he had moved to second behind Forbidden Kingdom. By the top of the stretch Taiba had pulled even and then ran away down the lane to win by 4¼ lengths.
Taiba paid $2.80 win. Forbidden Kingdom was second followed by Hoist The Gold, Nakatomi, Strava, Apprehend, Straight No Chaser, Messier and Perfect Flight.
Baffert said Taiba would come back as a 4-year-old but wouldn’t spell out his next race.
Country Grammer’s win in the 1 1/16-mile San Antonio sets up the horse for another trip to the Middle East, probably with Dettori as the rider. The winner of Monday’s race came with an invitation to the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in Florida, but Baffert said he would pass.
“He’ll run in the Saudi Cup and hopefully if he comes out well go to Dubai, just like [this] year,” Baffert said. The horse finished second in the Saudi Cup and won the Dubai World Cup.
Country Grammer was the big favorite paying $3.20 to win, which he did by 4½ lengths. Stilleto Boy finished second followed by Heywood Beach, Breakfast Ride, Hudson Ridge and Hopkins.
“Watching that horse win gives me goosebumps,” Baffert said. “Even Dettori says he feels better than he did before. He knows the horse well and he’s just a one pace kind of horse. He’ll run all day.
“I thought 1 1/16 [miles] might be a little short and I was a little bit worried about it. I saw Dettori was looking back at the three-eighths pole. It’s a good feeling because usually that means they are loaded.”
Dettori, 52, said next year would be his last as a jockey. He plans to conclude his career at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3-4.
“Thirty-five years went like a flash,” Dettori said. “I’ve got to make these last 12 months the best that I can and enjoy it. Most of all I’ve had a great career, and this is where it all started, and this is where it will finish.”
Jill Baffert was wiping away tears in the winner’s circle after Fun To Dream won the Grade 1 $300,000 La Brea, the seven-furlong equivalent for 3-year-old fillies. She is partners with Connie Pageler, who along with her late husband, Mike, had an unremarkable mare named Lutess. Then Bob Baffert had this wild idea.
“I just bred that mare with Mike, because he’s such a good guy,” Baffert said. “I wanted to do something crazy. You’ve got an $8,000 mare and I breed her to Arrogate. I could just take the $70,000 [breeding share], but I decided to do this … and then Mike got sick.”
Baffert had the breeding right because he trained Arrogate, but it’s highly unusual to breed a top stallion to such an average mare.
“This is why we dream, it’s fun to dream and that’s why we named her that,” Baffert said. “It’s like California Chrome, so you can say it can be done.”
Fun To Dream paid $7.40 to win with Juan Hernandez as the rider.
In the other graded stakes, One More Bid ($35 to win) won the Grade 2 $200,000 Mathis Mile on the turf for trainer Ryan Hanson and jockey Ramon Vasquez; Dicey Mo Chara ($9.60) took the 1 1/8 mile turf Grade 2 $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes for Leonard Powell and Hernandez and Rhea Moon ($15.60) won the Grade 1 $300,000 American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies going 1¼ miles on the turf for Phil D’Amato and Hernandez, his fourth win on the day.
It would be more than remarkable if Santa Anita has a bigger day in this current meet than Monday when 41,446 were in attendance. It harkened back to the days when the track opening drew crowds well in excess of that.
“I just want to thank all the fans who showed up,” Baffert said of the crowd size. “It’s beautiful when you win with this many people here. … It just goes to show you how strong racing is in California.”