Smiling Tiger, making his first appearance under the Twin Spires since finishing third in last fall's Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), is the mild favorite in the $300,000 Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II) May 7.
The seven-furlong event, the ninth race on the Kentucky Derby Day program with a 3:51 p.m. EDT probable post, drew a field of 12.
Smiling Tiger, a 2 1/2-length winner of the Count Fleet Handicap (gr. III) in his most recent start April 14 at Oaklawn Park, is the 7-2 choice in the Churchill Downs. The highly contentious field also includes Carter Handicap (gr. I) runner-up Apriority, Capt. Candyman Can, Aikenite and Captain Cherokee.
Trained by Jeff Bonde for Alan Klein and Philip Lebherz, 4-year-old Smiling Tiger won a pair of grade I races last year in Southern California prior to giving a strong effort in the Breeders' Cup. The son of Hold That Tiger bobbled at the start of that six-furlong race, chased the leaders in fourth and drifted out late after rallying to finish 1 3/4 lengths behind the victorious Big Drama.
Smiling Tiger has won his past two starts after Bonde teamed him with Joel Rosario, who will have the ride in the Churchill Downs. In the seven-furlong San Carlos Stakes (gr. II) on a wet-fast track at Santa Anita Feb. 19, Smiling Tiger came from off the pace to nip Captain Cherokee by a head. Two months later, he was much the best as the 3-5 choice in the six-furlong Count Fleet.
Never out of the money in 14 starts, Smiling Tiger has seven wins and earnings of $995,864 to lead the field. He drew post 2 and shares the high weight assignment of 122 pounds with Dogwood Stables Aikenite, who was stuck with the rail.
Aikenite overcame that starting post in winning Keeneland's Commonwealth Stakes (gr. II) by 2 1/4 lengths April 16, though he faced just four rivals on the Polytrack that day. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the 4-year-old Yes It's True colt is 5-1 on the morning line and will once again have the services of jockey John Velazquez.
Also well-fancied at 4-1 is Donald Dizney's homebred Apriority, who has two wins and two seconds in four starts in 2011, including a game runner-up effort as the 7-5 pick in the seven-furlong Carter at Aqueduct April 9. He bid for the lead in upper stretch but could not hold off Morning Line in the final sixteenth, losing by 1 1/2 lengths.
Apriority, who defeated Aikenite by 4 1/2 lengths in an optional claiming allowance at Gulfstream Park a month before the Carter, remains in search of his first stakes win for trainer David Fawkes.
Since returning from a 14-month absence in February, Capt. Candyman Can has looked superb in two victories for trainer Ian Wilkes, most recently taking the Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream by a neck over Regal Ransom . Owned by Rosemary Rauch and David Zell, the grade II-winning son of Candy Ride has always been top-notch with eight wins in 14 starts and earnings of $733,223. Calvin Borel rides the 9-2 shot.
The other Captain in the race, Stonestreet Stables' Captain Cherokee (6-1), looks to break through after three consecutive runner-up finishes in grade II sprints at Santa Anita, the last two losses coming by a head. Robby Albarado gets the call from trainer Steve Asmussen.
There are a number of good longshot candidates as well.
Grade III winner Mythical Power (10-1) was a close third for trainer Bob Baffert behind Smiling Tiger and Captain Cherokee in the San Carlos.
Noble's Promise (10-1), a grade I winner of $951,703 for trainer Ken McPeek, makes his first start since finishing fifth in the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) Dec. 26 at Santa Anita.
Here Comes Ben (10-1), upset winner of Saratoga's Forego Stakes (gr. I) last summer and a three-time winner at Churchill, makes his first appearance since he was unplaced as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) Nov. 6.
Pletcher also entered Ibboyee (12-1), a multiple stakes-winning New York-bred colt who was a close fourth behind Capt. Candyman Can in the Sir Shackleton last time.
$300,000 Churchill Downs Stakes (gr. II, Race 9, 3:51 p.m.), 4 & Up, 7 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Aikenite (FL), J R Velazquez, 122, T A Pletcher, 5/1
2. Smiling Tiger (KY), J Rosario, 122, J Bonde, 7/2
3. Apriority (FL), R A Dominguez, 118, D Fawkes, 4/1
4. Captain Cherokee (KY), R Albarado, 118, S M Asmussen, 6/1
5. Mythical Power (KY), M Garcia, 118, B Baffert, 10/1
6. Capt. Candyman Can (KY), C H Borel, 118, I R Wilkes, 9/2
7. Ibboyee (NY), G K Gomez, 118, T A Pletcher, 12/1
8. Chocolate Candy (KY), C S Nakatani, 118, J Hollendorfer, 30/1
9. Delong Road (KY), G Saez, 118, D W Lukas, 50/1
10. Noble's Promise (KY), A Garcia, 118, K G McPeek, 10/1
11. Le Grand Cru (KY), J Theriot, 118, R W Werner, 50/1
12. Here Comes Ben (KY), J R Leparoux, 118, C Lopresti, 10/1
Blinkers On: Le Grand Cru