COUNT FLEET HANDICAP | PURSE: $200,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS AND UP | GRADE 3 | 6 FURLONGS
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- For all Smiling Tiger accomplished last year at 3 -- knocking off older horses in the both the Bing Crosby and Ancient Title and running third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint -- there are reasons to believe he will be even better this season.
"He's a bigger, stronger horse as a 4-year-old," said Jeff Bonde, who trains Smiling Tiger. "He went from teenager to man."
Smiling Tiger overcame trouble to win the Grade 2 San Carlos in February, and will attempt to keep his momentum rolling Thursday in the Grade 3, $200,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn Park. He is the 122-pound highweight for the six-furlong sprint that continues the Racing Festival of the South during Oaklawn's final week of racing.
The Count Fleet field of six also includes Chief of Affairs, the runner-up in this race a year ago who won the $75,000 Hot Springs last month at Oaklawn with a Beyer Speed Figure of 106; Riley Tucker, the runner-up to Girolamo in the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont in October; and Native Ruler, a local stakes winner in January.
Smiling Tiger got up for a head win in the San Carlos at Santa Anita in his last start, when he closed from much farther back than usual after stumbling at the start. Ridden for the first time by Joel Rosario, the horse rallied from six lengths off the pace.
"It was a miracle to watch," said Bonde. "I thought of him as a speed horse. Joel Rosario rode a great race. He made the most of a terrible start, and we got lucky enough to win.
Smiling Tiger, said Bonde, "showed a different dimension."
Rosario will be aboard from post 3, and Smiling Tiger might get a tracking trip behind Chief of Affairs, who wired the Hot Springs, covering six furlongs in a blazing 1:08.40. The race was March 20, and Bret Calhoun, who trains Chief of Affairs, is anxious to see if the horse can turn in another strong race on a three-week turnaround.
"He's come back great, trained super," Calhoun said. "But always in the back of your mind, you're worried about bouncing off a huge effort like that. He's never given me any reason to believe he's going to regress or bounce, but I know usually you find the answer to that question from the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole. It's obviously a concern, but he's not shown us anything in his training that he was emptied out."
Cliff Berry has the mount from post 5.
Holyfield will make his stakes debut after winning three straight races, his latest a dominant allowance score at Oaklawn with a career-high Beyer of 97.
"The Count Fleet is a big step, and that's pretty obvious," said his trainer, Tony Dutrow. "But the horse has gone down to Oaklawn Park and he has turned the corner. He's doing very well. He's running faster. And one must admit his last race was somewhat impressive. We're well aware we're taking a big step with the Count Fleet, but once again, the horse is doing very good, and liking Oaklawn Park."
Joe Rocco Jr. has the mount.