INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The most important race of Smiling Tiger's brief career is Saturday's $250,000 Ancient Title Stakes at Hollywood Park.
If he runs well, a start in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6 awaits. If he runs a disappointing race, owners Philip Lebherz and Alan Klein and trainer Jeff Bonde will have to regroup and will likely stay in California.
Bonde, for one, is ready for a journey to Kentucky.
"We're hoping he comes with a big one," Bonde said. "He needs to run a good race."
A winner of 4 of 8 starts, Smiling Tiger, 3, won two stakes during the spring and summer -- the Grade 3 Laz Barrera Memorial Stakes here in May and the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar on Aug. 1 in his first start against older horses. Sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the Grade 1 Pat O'Brien Handicap over seven furlongs on Aug. 28, Smiling Tiger never took his customary place on the lead and faded in the stretch to finish 4 3/4 lengths behind race winner El Brujo.
"The horse hopped in the air at the break and he seemed off his game that day," Bonde said. "I don't know why. He's trained much better for this race. His races at Hollywood Park have always been good."
The Ancient Title is expected to have a field of eight, including defending Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Dancing in Silks as well as the 2010 stakes winners Cost of Freedom, E Z's Gentlemen, and Gato Go Win. The other runners are New Bay, Supreme Summit, and Truest Legend.
Russell Baze will ride Smiling Tiger, replacing Victor Espinoza who is riding at Keeneland on Saturday. Baze rode Smiling Tiger in his first three starts at 2 last year, including two wins. The race strategy that Bonde will use is basic -- Smiling Tiger is an intended pacesetter.
"Our horse is a free-running horse and he loves to run," Bonde said.
Sidney's Candy will be heavily favored to win the $150,000 Oak Tree Mile on turf Saturday. A four-time stakes winner, including the Santa Anita Derby earlier this year, Sidney's Candy is the lone 3-year-old in a field expected to include Blue Chagall, Colgan's Chip, Liberian Freighter, Meteore, Tropic Storm, and Victor's Cry.
Tropic Storm may start in Monday's Morvich Handicap over six furlongs on turf instead.