Smiling Tiger wins the  Vernon O. Underwood Stakes.

Smiling Tiger wins the Vernon O. Underwood Stakes.

Benoit Photography

Smiling Tiger Roars Back in Underwood

Third-place finisher in Breeders' Cup Sprint gets his first win of the year Dec. 2.

Favored Smiling Tiger , back on his home track at Betfair Hollywood Park, posted his first win of the year in the $100,000 Vernon O. Underwood Stakes (gr. III) Dec. 2 (VIDEO).

Trained by Jeff Bonde for owners Alan Klein and Philip Lebherz, 5-year-old Smiling Tiger was making his first start since registering a good closing third in the Xpressbet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park. The son of Hold That Tiger was making his fifth start of the year in the Underwood.

With Rafael Bejarano aboard, Smiling Tiger sat a perfect trip behind the pacesetters and finished strongly under slight urging to win the six-furlong Cushion Track test by one length. The final time over a track slowed by considerable rain in recent days was 1:11.24.

Private Zone finished second after setting the pace over Smash and Comma to the Top, with Capital Account  coming on late for third.

Smiling Tiger earned his fourth victory in five starts at Hollywood. Included are two grade I triumphs in the 2010 Ancient Title Stakes and the Triple Bend Handicap (gr. I) in July 2011. The latest victory was Smiling Tiger's first since his 3 1/4-length score in the seven-furlong Triple Bend and ended a six-race losing streak.

The main concern coming into the Underwood was how Smiling Tiger, who had throat surgery to correct a breathing problem prior to the Breeders' Cup, would handle his second start after a big effort. The public didn't seem overly concerned, however, sending the sturdy chestnut off as the 17-10 choice in the field of six.

"He took a little break and came back for the big race (Breeders' Cup Sprint)," Bonde said. "He wheeled right back and trained great for this race.

"As a 2-year-old he had a throat issue," Bonde explained. "We did a procedure on him and it lasted 2 1/2 years, so you can't really cry about it. It fell apart on us at Betfair Hollywood Park in his last start (a fifth in the Triple Bend June 30) and we had to do it again. (The owners) said we had to make the Breeders' Cup and we did. We'll try to space his races because we're hoping to take him to Dubai."

The Underwood field included three from the Bob Baffert barn (he scratched a fourth, Fast Bullet) as well as Comma to the Top, a grade I winner over the track.

But it was Private Zone, the longest shot in the field, who took the lead from Smash leaving the gate from the far outside post and dictated the pace while stepping the opening quarter mile in :22.84 and the half in :46.34. Comma to the Top, close to the leaders in third, angled to the outside to challenge on the far turn as Smiling Tiger bided his time while following the first three.

In the stretch, Smiling Tiger swung to the four path and came after the leaders, gradually gaining the lead from Comma to the Top at the sixteenth pole and inching away late under a right hand from Bejarano.

Bejarano said a good break was key for Smiling Tiger, who sometimes is slow out of the gate.

"Once I broke well, I was just waiting and waiting on the outside until the stretch," Bejarano said. "The outside of the track has been better, so it worked out really well.''

Private Zone, passed by Comma to the Top, fought back under Martin Pedroza from between horses to get the runner-up spot by half a length. Capital Account broke slowly from the rail for David Flores but rallied late to nose out Comma to the Top for third. Smash was next, followed distantly by Bank the Eight.

Out of the Cahill Road mare Shandra Smiles, Smiling Tiger was bred in Kentucky by Dr. Rodney Orr.

Smiling Tiger won for the ninth time in 23 lifetime races with 10 placings while boosting his career bankroll to $1,480,704.

Carrying 122 pounds, the consistent performer paid $5.40, $3.20, $2.20. Private Zone, a grade I winner in Panama now trained by Doug O'Neill, returned $7.40 and $4.40. The exacta was worth $47.20. Capital Account, the 124-pound highweight coming off a 12th-place finish in the BC Sprint for Baffert, paid $2.60.

"This horse needs six and a half or seven furlongs for his best," Flores said of Capital Account. "He was slow out of there and made up a lot of ground, but not enough."

Baffert also saddled Smash and Bank the Eight.