11/30/2012 2:52PM

Hollywood Park: Smiling Tiger primed for Vernon Underwood

Barbara D. Livingston
Smiling Tiger has overcome throat problems to regain his form coming into Sunday's Vernon Underwood.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Smiling Tiger returned from a four-month break to finish a solid third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 3 as a 20-1 outsider.

He was beaten three lengths by upset winner Trinniberg and had the best finish of a California-based runner in the field of 14. That will make Smiling Tiger the favorite to win the eighth stakes of his career in Sunday’s $100,000 Vernon Underwood Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park.

“He’s been training up a storm,” trainer Jeff Bonde said on Friday. “He should run his race.”

The layoff from late June to the Breeders’ Cup was caused by a breathing problem, Bonde said. A minor operation kept Smiling Tiger from racing at Del Mar.

“He had a throat issue,” Bonde said. “We fixed it, and he’s come back running.”

In the Grade 3 Underwood, Smiling Tiger is part of field of seven. Four of the runners are trained by Bob Baffert – Bank the Eight, Capital Account, Fast Bullet, and Smash. Fast Bullet and Capital Account were sixth and 12th in the BC Sprint.

The other runners in the Underwood field are Comma to the Top, the winner of two minor sprint stakes since early September, and Private Zone, who was second in the Damascus Stakes at Santa Anita on Nov. 3.

Smiling Tiger has won 8 of 22 starts and $1,420,704 for owners Alan Klein and Philip Lebherz. A 5-year-old, Smiling Tiger is winless in six starts since the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap here in July 2011. In his career, Smiling Tiger has won 3 of 4 starts at Hollywood Park.

“He’s run well historically on the Hollywood track,” Bonde said. “He’s pretty versatile when it comes to surfaces.”

The Baffert team is led by Capital Account, who won the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar in August and was second to stablemate Coil in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship in October. In the BC Sprint, Capital Account was last early and was never a factor, losing by 11 lengths.

Baffert said earlier this week that a speed-favoring track at Santa Anita that day worked against Capital Account and Fast Bullet, who was beaten 5 1/2 lengths.

“If you didn’t come back clean, you were doomed,” Baffert said. “They didn’t have a shot.”

In the Underwood, Smash will start for the first time since finishing seventh in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita last December. He is in the Underwood out of necessity, the trainer said.

“There is no other place to run,” Baffert said.

Bank the Eight will make his graded stakes debut in the Underwood. A 5-year-old who has won 5 of 10 starts, Bank the Eight won an optional claimer over seven furlongs by 5 3/4 lengths here on Nov. 10.

Fast Bullet and Private Zone are likely to be part of the pace, closely followed by Comma to the Top, who won the Pirate’s Bounty Stakes at Del Mar in September and the Big Bear Stakes at Santa Anita in October.

Smiling Tiger will race behind the early leaders and should be a threat in the stretch.

“I think the horse is doing very well,” Bonde said. “He’s a sound horse.”