02/05/2009 1:00AM

Smooth Air starts off with modest goal

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It would have been very tempting for trainer Bennie Stutts Jr. to have launched Smooth Air's 4-year-old campaign in either a lucrative spot like the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic or a prestigious race such as the Grade 1 Donn Handicap. Instead, the patient Stutts opted to wait and begin Smooth Air's 2009 season on the grass for a mere $75,000 purse in Saturday's Tallahassee Stakes for Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park.

The one-mile Tallahassee drew a field of 13 that also includes Grade 1 winner Wicked Style, graded stakes winner Jet Propulsion, Formal King, Ruff and Ready, and Fearless Eagle.

"He just wasn't ready for the Sunshine Millions or the Donn," said Stutts, who trains Smooth Air for Brian Burns's Mount Joy Stables. "This was my call and the owner went along with me. It's a good place to start."

Smooth Air has not run since finishing seventh, five lengths behind Raven's Pass, in the Breeders' Cup Classic. That outing completed a 3-year-old campaign during which Smooth Air won the Grade 2 Hutcheson and Ohio Derby, finished second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, and 11th in the Kentucky Derby. He also won his only start on grass, the Needles Stakes at Calder.

"He's ready," said Stutts. "Horses don't work as well as he has if they're not ready, and the word 'short' is not in my vocabulary. He's got enough speed that he shouldn't be more than two or three lengths off the lead, and the way he ran on turf the first time, who knows, he might be even better on grass than dirt."

Eclipse Award winner Paco Lopez will ride Smooth Air for the first time.

Jet Propulsion has led throughout to capture his last two starts, including a high-priced optional claiming race at a mile here on Jan. 21.

The versatile Formal King posted three straight wire-to-wire wins before having the streak snapped when he finished 10th under allowance conditions over the inner track at Aqueduct.

"He didn't like the inner and threw in the towel, but a mile is his game and they're going to have to run a big race to beat him," said Formal King's trainer, Rick Dutrow.

Fearless Eagle and Ruff and Ready finished third and fifth behind Jet Propulsion on Jan. 21 and would benefit if they get some help up front to soften up Jet Propulsion.