Apples or Oranges? Epicenter or Taiba? 

January 6, 2023

Left: Epicenter with Joel Rosario up won the G1 Travers at Saratoga August 27, 2022. (Chris Rahayel); Right: Taiba with Mike Smith riding won the G1 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx September 24, 2022. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

How does one judge the most accomplished three-year-old?

By Laura Pugh

When it comes to the Eclipse Awards, the award for Champion 3-year-old is a very contentious category. Several, including myself believe that Epicenter, this year’s Travers winner should take the prize. However there seem to be just as many that believe three-time grade one winner, Taiba, should take the title. 

The debates are heated, and understandably so, but the obstinance I’m seeing from the Epicenter side is a bit unwarranted… So let me, as an Epicenter supporter, play the devils advocate. 

Epicenter did race more this year and faced some very stiff competition. There is no denying that. He ran winning races in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to get beaten by circumstances and trip. Many could… and honestly do say, that a great horse more often than not, can overcome circumstances and trip. They aren’t wrong to think that way, especially in the case of the Preakness. 

Epicenter winning the G1 Travers.

During the Summer Epicenter blossomed. He was consistently improving during the Spring and seemed like he could have tapered off by the Preakness, but his wins in the Jim Dandy and Travers were exceptional. The problem was… he couldn’t continue that winning march, taking the Autumn off, then getting injured in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

On the other hand, Taiba won the grade one Santa Anita Derby in the Spring, before taking the Pennsylvania Derby in the Fall and the Malibu in the Winter. Between those wins, Taiba had two very respectable finishes in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Haskell Invitational. In the latter, he narrowly missed to Cyberknife, who ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile to Cody’s Wish. He finished 3rd in the Classic to Flightline and Olympiad. Flightline was in a class of his own that day, but Taiba was only ½ a length behind Olympiad. 

Taiba’s only “bad” race was the Kentucky Derby. A race he entered in a new barn, under a new trainer, and against history. Remember, the Kentucky Derby was to be his third career start. This is one LESS than what Justify, who broke the Apollo curse entered with. 

2022 G1 Kentucky Derby

You could also argue that he had a worse trip than Epicenter, being closer to the insane early pace by three lengths, after being used from post 12 to secure position. He was then wider than Epicenter through the backstretch and final turn. Given the trip and circumstances, it’s not surprising that Taiba tired.

“But his competition wasn’t as good!!!”

Ummm, did we forget that Messier and Forbidden Kingdom, the two main competitors he defeated in the Santa Anita Derby, were coming into that race off dominant wins in their last preps? During the Spring, those two horses were in top form. In just his second start, Taiba tracked those two, then ran down his stablemate Messier in the stretch. 

Taiba in the G1 Pa. Derby.

In the Pennsylvania Derby he defeated both Zandon and Cyberknife…. The two horses that came in second and third to Epicenter in the Travers. When you look at that race, Taiba actually beat almost every single horse Epicenter beat in the Jim Dandy and Travers, which make the whole argument of “he hasn’t beaten anyone” seem really silly.

Look, I get that the prestige is more for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Travers. There is no arguing that. With that said, stop acting like Taiba has no claim to the title of 3-year old Champion. He beat the same horses that as Epicenter this year and won three grade one races in doing so. Taiba has done more than enough to warrant support for the championship, and the people arguing in his favor have very valid points. 

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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That was a phenomenal article Jonathan. Thank you for writing it and sharing it. Ruffian was my second love (after Man O' War) and I simply cannot stop the tears from falling every time I read about this magnificent black beauty.

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