INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Week after week through June, Smiling Tiger recorded blisteringly quick workouts at Hollywood Park, leading toward Saturday's $250,000 Triple Bend Handicap over seven furlongs.
A five-furlong workout in 58.60 seconds on June 9 was followed a week later by another work in 58.80, and, finally, a six-furlong workout in 1:11.40 on June 23. Always a fast worker, Smiling Tiger seems even quicker this summer.
"He's had time between races, and that's when he blasts off," trainer Jeff Bonde said. "He's doing really good right now. We think he's at his apex."
Owned by Philip Lebherz and Alan Klein, Smiling Tiger has won six stakes in his career and will be after his third in a Grade 1 in the Triple Bend. As a 3-year-old last year, Smiling Tiger won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar and the Grade 1 Ancient Title Stakes here in October, both against older horses.
On May 7, Smiling Tiger finished a troubled sixth of 12 as the 5-2 favorite in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes over seven furlongs.
"It was like an L.A. freeway at traffic time," Bonde said of the troubled race. "I'll leave it to that. As long as he gets a chance to run, he comes up with a big race."
Smiling Tiger is part of a strong field of eight in the Triple Bend, which includes the stakes winners Amazombie, Bench Points, Camp Victory, M One Rifle, and Uh Oh Bango and the allowance race winners Color of Courage and El Martillo.
Liberian Freighter also is a six-time stakes winner, and the veteran 6-year-old gelding will be after his first win in a Grade 1 in Saturday's $300,000 Shoemaker Mile on turf.
Trained by Neil Drysdale, Liberian Freighter won two graded stakes in April – the Grade 2 Arcadia Stakes at Santa Anita on April 9 and the Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap at Hollywood Park on April 24, leading throughout both races.
In the Grade 2 American Handicap on May 28, Liberian Freighter was within a length of pacesetter Sidney's Candy for the first six furlongs of the mile race and faded to finish fifth of six. Ryehill Dreamer finished a nose in front of Sidney's Candy in that race.
"He got tangled up in a speed duel with Sidney's Candy, and it cost both of them," Drysdale said.
For the Shoemaker, Liberian Freighter, who will be ridden by Martin Garcia, may not face pressure for the lead. The other six entrants -- Ashtar, Blue Chagall, Caracortado, Courageous Cat, Smokey Lonesome, and Victor's Cry -- do not have a committed front-runner among them.
Drysdale said that Liberian Freighter can lead or stalk. Last fall, Liberian Freighter won the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile after stalking the pace in third-place for most of the race.
"As he's getting older, he's getting more adaptable," Drysdale said.
The Shoemaker is part of the Breeders' Cup challenge program, offering a fees-paid berth to the BC Mile at Churchill Downs in November to the winner. Courageous Cat has Breeders' Cup experience, having finished second to the mighty Goldikova in the 2009 BC Mile at Santa Anita.