Under a patient ride from Joel Rosario, odds-on choice Smiling Tiger rolled to a 2 1/2-length victory in the $200,000 Count Fleet Handicap (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park April 14 (VIDEO).
A two-time grade I winner in 2010, the 4-year-old Smiling Tiger has now recorded back-to-back graded stakes victories this season for trainer Jeff Bonde.
Alan Klein and Philip Lebherz own the winning son of Hold That Tiger—Shandra Smiles, by Cahill Road. The chestnut colt, just shy of $1 million in career earnings, was bred in Kentucky by Dr. Rodney Orr.
Rosario flew in from Southern California, where he is closing in on his first riding title at Santa Anita, for the Count Fleet. He teamed with Smiling Tiger for the first time in the San Carlos Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita Feb, 19, winning the seven-furlong test on a wet-fast track by a head.
Bonde believes Smiling Tiger has turned a corner in his development.
“Prior to the race we were remarking how much he had improved and how composed he was," he said. "He's always been a type-A personality and keyed up, but he was probably the best he's ever been today. Very professional and he certainly wasn't like that early in his career at all. He's developed a new style, and he's been very good in the gate. There was no raising Cain or acting up."
The final time for the six-furlong event at Oaklawn was a sharp 1:08.63.
Just six contested the Count Fleet, with Smiling Tiger going off as the 3-5 favorite. Second choice Chief of Affairs broke on top for Cliff Berry and set a quick pace while leading Silver Magnus by about a length, with Smiling Tiger sitting in fifth behind Holyfield and Native Ruler. Fractions were brisk: 22.29 for the opening quarter mile and :44.74 for the half.
Silver Magnus, ridden by Michael Baze, challenged Chief of Affairs for the lead rounding the turn and those two battled head-and-head down the stretch.
Smiling Tiger, five wide into the lane, advanced steadily and found another gear when Rosario switched to a left-handed stick approaching the sixteenth pole. He mowed past the leaders and quickly drew off for a convincing win.
“He came out from the gate a little slow, but I let him regroup," Rosario said. "He settled nicely and when I asked him he gave me a great kick turning for home. He showed me in his last race that he can run, but today he showed me he can really run."
Silver Magnus, who put his head in front at the eighth pole, edged Chief of Affairs by a neck for second. Native Ruler finished just a nose farther back in fourth with a late surge along the rail.
Smiling Tiger, who had been training impressively for this race since mid-March at Oaklawn, improved his career mark to 7-1-6 in 14 starts with earnings of $995,864. His owners collected $120,000 for the Count Fleet victory, which was Smiling Tiger's first race at Oaklawn.
"We sent him out here and the extra time really paid off," Bonde noted. "He really enjoyed it here.
"This is one of the most special horses to us. He really turned it around for us. He's led us to a lot of thrills and hopefully a lot more thrills to come."
Bonde said the Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II) at seven furlongs May 7 will be considered for Smiling Tiger, though he might wait for the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).
Winner of both the Bing Crosby (gr. I) and Ancient Title (gr. I) stakes last year, Smiling Tiger posted a solid third-place effort in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Churchill Downs Nov. 6.
Smiling Tiger carried top weight of 122 pounds and paid $3.20, $2.80 and $2.10. Silver Magnus, making his stakes debut for trainer Mac Robertson, returned $12.80 and $4.80 and rounded out a $56.80 exacta. Chief of Affairs, winner of Oaklawn's Hot Spring Stakes in his most recent start for trainer Bret Calhoun, was $2.40 to show.
"Our horse ran a great race, (but) I thought our horse kind of set it up for the winner and I wish we would’ve waited a little longer before we went to the front," Robertson said. "But at 30-1 you know those jockeys get a little anxious.”
Native Ruler was followed by Riley Tucker and Holyfield.