“Pretty exciting moment,” Yakteen said in the winner’s circle, his forehead sweaty under a hot sun. “Overwhelmed is an understatement.”
At Keeneland, Zandon rallied from the back of the field to overtake favorite Smile Happy in the stretch and win the $1 million Blue Grass by 2½ lengths. He ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.35 on the muddy-to-good track and paid $6.20 to win.
At Aqueduct, Mo Donegal rallied to win the $750,000 Wood Memorial by a neck.
In California, Taiba won just the second start of his career and his first in a stakes race, running 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67. Purchased for $1.7 million, he’s a son of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner. He paid $10.60, $3.60 and $3.20 at 4-1 odds.
Messier returned $2.80 and $2.10. Happy Jack was another 10 lengths back in third and paid $4.20 to show. Armagnac, the third colt in the field who came to Yakteen from Baffert’s barn, was fourth.
Forbidden Kingdom, the even-money favorite, was last in the field of six.
Taiba made his debut at Santa Anita on March 5, winning by 7 1/2 lengths for Baffert. Yakteen, once a longtime assistant for Baffert, took over a couple weeks later.
The major West Coast prep for the Kentucky Derby was expected to be a showdown between Messier and Forbidden Kingdom. But Taiba flashed his early speed and took on both rivals out of the starting gate.
“It’s hard to actually verbalize what he just accomplished,” Yakteen said. “You don’t see that at this level unless you’re just exceptionally, exceptionally gifted. Obviously, this horse has that type of talent.”
Taiba earned 100 qualifying points for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. He moved from last place on the leaderboard to eighth place, putting him solidly in the 20-horse field for the Derby. Messier moved from last place to 18th with 40 points, ending his shot to run in the Derby.
It wasn’t in the plans for Taiba to take on such top-tier talent as Messier and Forbidden Kingdom. But owner Amr Zedan overruled Yakteen.
“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 (Kentucky) Derby another go,” Yakteen said. “That’s what he’s in the game for. He took the gamble. That was a huge gamble and horse paid off.”
Zedan owned Medina Spirit, which was disqualified from his victory in the 2021 Kentucky Derby after a post-race drug test came up positive for a steroid that is illegal in Kentucky on race day. Medina Spirit died after a workout for Baffert at Santa Anita in December.
Baffert’s horses had been prohibited by Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, from earning any Derby qualifying points, so Messier’s win in the Robert Lewis Stakes and second in the Los Alamitos Futurity earned him nothing. Baffert is suing Churchill Downs in federal court over its two-year ban.
Last week, the Kentucky Court of Appeals rejected Baffert’s motion for emergency relief from his 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. His suspension is the result of medication violations involving some of his horses, including Medina Spirit.
Baffert had to vacate his barn at Santa Anita last Monday. He is banned from all California Horse Racing Board-licensed facilities during his suspension.
In Kentucky, Zandon trailed the Blue Grass field nearing the far turn before charging through traffic at the top of the stretch. He and jockey Flavien Prat chased down Emmanuel before flying past Smile Happy for his second career win in four starts on a cold, overcast day.
Trained by Chad Brown, Zandon earned 100 qualifying points and moved into second place on the Derby leaderboard with 114 points. Smile Happy, the 9-5 favorite, finished second.
In New York, Joel Rosario guided Mo Donegal over 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.96. He paid $6.30 to win. Trainer Todd Pletcher tied “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons for most Wood wins with seven.
Mo Donegal earned 100 qualifying points and moved into fourth place on the Derby leaderboard.
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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