10/12/2010 2:17PM

Smiling Tiger has connections grinning

Benoit & Associates
Smiling Tiger, Russell Baze up, wins the Ancient Title.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Philip Lebherz was in the winner’s circle after Smiling Tiger’s win in the Ancient Title Stakes at Hollywood Park last Saturday when he yelled two words that summed up the colt’s accomplishments in the last 75 days.

"Breeders’ Cup!" Lebherz shouted to no one in particular. Everyone within earshot range knew what he meant.

Smiling Tiger, the only 3-year-old in the Ancient Title, had won his second Grade 1 race of the year. He has emerged as the leading California contender for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6.

"I didn’t sleep the first night after the race," Lebherz said on Monday. "It’s really fun."

Until the Ancient Title, California did not have a clear contender for the BC Sprint. Smiling Tiger is the only sprinter in California to win two graded sprint stakes for 3-year-olds and older on the circuit in 2010. At Santa Anita earlier this year, Kinsale King (Palos Verdes Handicap), Bob Black Jack (San Carlos Handicap), and Ventana (Potrero Grande Handicap) won graded stakes. At Hollywood Park during the spring and summer, Cost of Freedom (Los Angeles Handicap), and E Z’s Gentleman (Triple Bend Handicap) won major sprints. At Del Mar, Smiling Tiger won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes and El Brujo won the Pat O’Brien Stakes.

As of earlier this week, Kinsale King, who won the $2 million Golden Shaheen in Dubai in March, and E Z’s Gentlemen were the other California-based probables for the BC Sprint. A decision has not been made on whether Cost of Freedom, who finished fourth in the Ancient Title, will make the race, trainer John Sadler said on Monday.

Lebherz and partner Alan Klein will spend more to enter and start Smiling Tiger in the BC Sprint than Lebherz did to acquire the horse. Lebherz and trainer Jeff Bonde bought Smiling Tiger for $40,000 at the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association September yearling sale in 2008. Klein later bought an interest from Lebherz when the colt was a yearling. By Hold That Tiger, Smiling Tiger has won 5 of 9 starts and $519,064.

To start in the BC Sprint, the fees are $20,000 to enter and $40,000 to start. Lebherz, 57, who operates an insurance company in the Bay Area, is ready to take the risk.

"We’ll send the horse sooner rather than later," Lebherz said. "We want him to be acclimated. It will be very exciting. We know how hard it is. I’ve had about 150 horses with Jeff over the years."

Klein, 55, and Lebherz have been partners on a few horses for the last two years, after meeting through Bonde. Klein grew up in Southern California, owned horses with his father, Norm, in the 1970’s and then left the sport until earlier this century. He spent Monday with Bonde at Barretts sales in Pomona inspecting yearlings for this week’s sale.

"I think he’s peaking at the perfect time," Klein said of Smiling Tiger.

Lebherz races throughout the state and has been on the Kentucky Derby trail twice – with Epic Honor and Sierra Sunset. Epic Honor was fourth in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in 1999, behind eventual Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic, and later fifth in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Sierra Sunset won the 2008 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but was later sidelined with a sesamoid injury.

"We had those Derby runs and they were so exciting, but both times we were crushed," Lebherz said. "To get to this, it’s a mixture of luck and procedures and management and you name it."

Smiling Tiger showed a new aspect to his running style in the Ancient Title. Instead of leading throughout, as he had in his first four career wins, Smiling Tiger stalked Cost of Freedom by a half-length for the first quarter-mile and was within a head of the front after a half-mile before taking the lead in the final furlong.

The stalking trip has left Lebherz hopeful that Smiling Tiger can be patient in the first half of the six-furlong BC Sprint if there is a torrid pace. If not, Lebherz said that Smiling Tiger can lead throughout.

"He’s a pretty tough horse to catch when he gets the early lead," Lebherz said. "This race, he got hooked at the end, but he had a little left. They didn’t catch us. I thought they’d catch us. That was a good sign they didn’t."

In the Bing Crosby, Smiling Tiger gave Lebherz, Klein, and Bonde their first Grade 1 wins. The Ancient Title was jockey Russell Baze’s first Grade 1 win since Lost in the Fog won the 2005 King’s Bishop Stakes at Saratoga.

Baze will retain the mount for the BC Sprint, Lebherz said.

"You’ve got to go with the guy that got you there, so we’ll go for Russell," Lebherz said. "He’s a strong sprint guy. Russell fits our horse pretty good. He needs to get out and let the horse do his own thing.

"We feel like we have a good chance. We won’t go on the ego. We’ll go on because we think he can win."