01/20/2011 1:51PM

Smiling Tiger aims to start championship season in Palos Verdes Stakes


ARCADIA, Calif. – Even with losses in his last two starts, Smiling Tiger’s status in the national sprint division has risen in recent months.

A two-time Grade 1 winner last year, Smiling Tiger was third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs in November and second, by a nose, in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26. He was a finalist for the Eclipse Award as outstanding sprinter of 2010.

On Saturday, Smiling Tiger will be expected to perform at a championship level when he makes his 2011 debut in the $150,000 Palos Verdes Stakes over six furlongs.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet,” trainer Jeff Bonde said.

Bonde and owners Alan Klein and Philip Lebherz hope Smiling Tiger can contend for the Eclipse Award this year. Smiling Tiger has won 5 of 11 starts. His 2010 season was highlighted by Grade 1 stakes wins in the Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar and the Ancient Title Stakes at Hollywood Park, both over six furlongs.

“He’s just a very athletic horse and he enjoys racing and training,” Bonde said.

In the Grade 2 Palos Verdes, Smiling Tiger breaks from the rail and will be ridden by regular rider Russell Baze. In the Malibu over seven furlongs, Baze had Smiling Tiger near the front throughout. The colt led by a length at the eighth pole but was beaten by Twirling Candy, who set a seven-furlong track record of 1:19.70.

The inside post in the Palos Verdes does not bother Bonde. The two horses drawn closest to him – Euroears and Ventana – are unlikely to beat Smiling Tiger to the lead.

“My horse runs his own race,” Bonde said. “He’s training great. We’re hoping for a really good race.”

Ventana won the Potrero Grande Handicap here last April.

Trainer John Sadler starts Hunch, who won an optional claimer at Hollywood Park on Dec. 18 in his second start after undergoing knee surgery.

“Hunch is improving, but I don’t know if we can beat Smiling Tiger,” Sadler said.

Gato Go Win, second to the Sadler-trained Cost of Freedom in the Grade 3 Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park on Nov. 25, is a threat from off the pace.

“He looks dynamite and is feeling good,” trainer Robert Troeger said. “I’d like to see him sit just off of it.”