If Smiling Tiger continues to produce performances like his gate-to-wire, 3 1/4-length victory in Saturday’s $250,000 Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park, he’s going to be mighty tough to beat in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs.
“We’re trying to win the Breeders’ Cup (Sprint) with him,” trainer Jeff Bonde said in the winner’s circle Saturday after the 4-year-old Hold That Tiger colt gained millionaire status with his eighth victory in 16 starts. His third victory without defeat over Hollywood Park’s synthetic Cushion Track improved his career earnings to $1,149,353.
What’s so impressive about Smiling Tiger is that he doesn’t need the lead to win. He carved out quick fractions of 22.29 and 44.95 seconds while winning the seven-furlong Triple Bend, but he came from fifth after breaking poorly to win the Grade III Count Fleet Handicap by 2 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn Park on April 14. Before that, he stumbled at the start of the Grade II San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 19 and closed to win by a head.
Last year he finished third, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths by Big Drama in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. But he’s a year older and seems to be even better than he was in 2010.
“He’s very athletic and he has the heart of a warrior,” Bonde said. “He comes to fight every time. He had an easy time of it (in the Triple Bend). Every day he seems to be a better animal. He was like a big, skinny teenager as a young horse and the older he’s gotten he’s put on muscle mass and filled out. He’s become a professional where before he was kind of a goof off as a young guy.”
Bonde plans to follow the same path he traveled with Smiling Tiger last summer, which means he’ll most likely run in both the Bing Crosby (July 31) and Pat O’Brien (Aug. 28) during the Del Mar meet that begins July 20. He won the Bing Crosby by 1 1/2 lengths last year before finishing third in the Pat O’Brien behind El Brujo and Crown of Thorns.
A picture of consistency, Smiling Tiger has finished off the board only once in 16 starts. His lone clunker came in his race before the Triple Bend when he finished sixth, beaten only 2 1/4 lengths, in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby day.
“In that race … he broke well, but the horse on the outside wanted to go with me so I tried to settle him and get him to relax,” said jockey Joel Rosario, who has ridden Smiling Tiger in his past four races and won three times. “But I got in trouble the whole way and had nowhere to go. It happens sometimes. It’s part of the game.”
Rosario remembers Dec. 26 when he was aboard Twirling Candy, who broke Spectacular Bid’s track record for seven furlongs while winning the opening-day Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita, and Smiling Tiger finished only a nose behind under Russell Baze.
“It took us a long time to get by the horse,” said Rosario, who no doubt is pleased to have the mount on Smiling Tiger now.