Feature Story



When Santa Anita Park opened the gates for its new Classic Meet season on 26 December, it was just like old times, the best of old times. With 41,446 fans on site to witness, Bob Baffert sent out two powerhouses in Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer and potential American 3yo champion Taiba to score big victories on the 11 race programme that the trainer dominated with five wins overall while sweeping both the Grade One races on dirt.

The fact that Frankie Dettori, who was kicking off his farewell tour to begin the long prelude to his retirement following the 2023 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, rode three winners, including his old friend Country Grammer, just added icing to this very rich holiday cake. Both Country Grammer, who finished second in the 2022 Saudi Cup before dominating the Dubai World Cup at Meydan, and Taiba now find themselves in ideal positions for the big Middle East races in 2023 as each unleashed the most visually impressive win of their respective careers while succeeding at distances that are not their best.

Country Grammer, who had finished second in each of his three previous starts in America since his lucrative Middle East junket over the winter, flashed a strong finishing kick while drawing away from five rivals in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes over 1700m, a route significantly less than his preferred 2000m trip.

With Dettori performing a flying dismount after the effort to the delight of the crowd, Baffert revealed that “this horse is training better than he ever has” while noting how Country Grammer has kept him buoyant throughout his well documented travails over the last two years. “This horse has brought us so much joy when things were down.

He always shows up,” Baffert said following the four and a half length win in a time of 1:43.45. “It was nice of Frankie Dettori to win one like that. He's such a great rider, and it's his last year to be part of it. I'm just blessed the owners gave me the horse to train, and I have a great staff backing me.” For his part, Dettori declared euphorically: “I’m spending the winter here and on day one riding, on one of the best horses in the world, the pressure was on. I felt it, but the horse was in great form, and I was able to enjoy the scream of the crowd and it is nice to be back at Santa Anita.

What a place! What a crowd! It’s amazing.” Country Grammer is co-owned by Saudi businessman Amr Zedan’s Zedan Racing Stables in partnership with WinStar Farm and Commonwealth Thoroughbreds. Zedan is the sole owner of Taiba and campaigned the late Medina Spirit, whose disqualification from his 2021 Kentucky Derby win is still being fought by the owner and Baffert.

A soon to be 6yo son of Tonalist, Country Grammer now has a record of five wins, five seconds and one third in 14 starts with earnings of $11,277,320. Meanwhile, Taiba also succeeded impressively after being hustled early by jockey Mike Smith in the 7f Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, the race that in 2021 launched the elite portion of the career of undefeated Flightline, who will be honoured in January at a London ceremony as the world’s best racehorse of 2022.

Speeding away from eight foes down the stretch after pressing early pacesetter and eventual runner-up Forbidden Kingdom through fast early fractions, Taiba won by four and a quarter lengths in 1:21.75 to gain his third Grade One victory of 2022 and thus stake claim as America’s best 3yo male. “There’s no bottom to this horse.

He’s getting better and better,” Baffert said of Taiba. “He looked a little heavy in the paddock, but that’s him. I think he is a lot like his sire, Gun Runner, getting better with age and he needs to go further; the Malibu distance is a little short for him. “He has turned into quite a horse,” Baffert praised. “It was a tough Malibu, and turning for home he always looks like he’s empty and he just finds new life.

I don’t know where he gets it from. He just has more gears and we saw an extra one today.” Earlier on the programme, Baffert saddled Fun To Dream, a grey daughter of his star crossed Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate, to win the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes for 3yo fillies. Adding even more lustre to his achievements, Baffert is the co-breeder of Fun To Dream.

While America’s most well known trainer did not make any outright proclamations about the future of any of his Santa Anita winners, it seems certain that he and Zedan already have locked their eyes on the Middle Eastern prizes, and it’s no overstatement to say they have the two best American runners currently in training for the demanding Cup races. And thus, with a flourish, the countdown to the world’s biggest prizes in horse racing has well and truly begun.