After a disappointing experience on the Triple Crown trail last year, Michael Tabor's Lion Tamer may be ready to emerge as one of the nation's top sprinters following his victory Saturday in the $200,000 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship Handicap (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park.
Off since beaten by more than 33 lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass (gr. I) at Keeneland in April, the son of Will's Way returned to action with an impressive 2 1/4-length win in a $75,000 allowance/optional claiming event Jan. 28 at seven furlongs at Gulfstream.
Ridden again by John Velazquez Saturday for trainer Todd Pletcher, Lion Tamer, the 8-5 favorite among seven entrants, seized the lead from Coach Jimi Lee in the final eighth of a mile and went on to record a three-quarters of a length triumph while fully extended. The final time for the seven-furlong event was an excellent 1:21 2/5.
Lion Tamer broke from the outside post and raced wide on the backstretch as True Direction set a lively early pace (;22, :44 1/5). Under pressure from the eventual third-place finisher, 58-1 Wacky for Love, True Direction gave way coming out of the turn with Coach Jimi Lee, ridden by Pat Day, and Lion Tamer on the outside closing quickly.
Coach Jimi Lee got past Wacky for Love on the inside with a furlong to go, but could not hold off Lion Tamer. Coach Jimi Lee was a half-length ahead of Wacky for Love and jockey Jose Santos.
"I loved the post position coming into here," Pletcher said. "You want to be outside when you go seven-eighths. You get a big edge. Obviously the horse has to be good enough, but this one got a great trip. He was in great position and he responded when Johnny (Velazquez) asked. Johnny said he got to idling when he made the lead."
Lion Tamer resembles the horse that recorded a smashing six-length win in last year's seven-furlong Hutcheson (gr. II). Stretching out to 1 1/8 mile for the Lane's End (g. II), he was fourth, followed by the Blue Grass debacle.
"He got off course after he won the Hutcheson last year," Pletcher said. "In the Lane's End he didn't break well and just had a really tough time. Then in the Blue Grass he got away bad and you just can't come from behind at Keeneland like that. After that he was just a tired horse. He's lightly framed and I guess he just wasn't up to that kind of hard campaign.
"He always looked like a horse that could stretch out. I don't think his bad races in the Blue Grass and Lane's End were because of the distance."
An expected duel with Gygistar and Valid Video, both sent off at 5-2, never materialized. Gygistar, the third choice, was reserved early and angled wide for the drive while making up only moderate ground for jockey Jerry Bailey, finishing fourth. Valid Video, ridden by Joe Bravo, was last into the stretch and failed to fire to be fifth. True Direction and Multiple Choice completed the order of finish.
Lion Tamer paid $5.20, $3.40 and $2.60 for his fifth win in eight lifetime starts. The winner's share of $120,000 pushed his career bankroll to $693,285.
Coach Jimi Lee returned $4.60 and $3.20. Wacky for Love's show was $7.20. The $2 exacta was worth $29.40.
Pletcher said he would consider the Commonwealth or Carter Handicap for Lion Tamer's next start. He said the Metropolitan Mile is something to think about.
"I want to space his races out," he said. "We could pass both those races and wait for a race on Derby Day. I think the Met Mile might be something up his alley."