Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans leaned back in his golf cart on the Arlington Park apron on Aug. 16, reflecting upon the chances of defending Arlington Million (gr. IT) contender Little Mike in this year's edition. The sun was shining as bright as on his old Kentucky home, and as the 6-year-old Spanish Steps gelding galloped across the Illinois oval, it seemed like a good day to think of history, and of comebacks, and of the last time this horse dashed wire-to-wire on that wide swath of emerald-green lawn.
No horse has ever won consecutive editions of the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million. And Little Mike, the 2012 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) winner, is 0-for-3 this year.
But a solid fourth in the July 6 United Nations (gr. IT) at Monmouth Park has Romans anticipating a good move from Priscilla Vaccarezza's runner, who needed a race after two failed efforts in Dubai earlier in the season.
"I think he's ready to roll," Romans remarked. "If he runs his race, then he'll be tough. It'd be history-making, for one horse to win it two years in a row. And we'd love to make history."
Down along the rail, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella watched his Argentinian import Indy Point gallop strongly through his paces. Indy Point is the steam horse for the Million, one who has garnered much coverage leading after a strong score in the July 24 Wickerr Stakes at Del Mar. It was a first U.S. start for the 4-year-old son of Indygo Shiner, who won two legs of Argentina's Triple Crown and was second in the final battle.
"Little by little, we taught him English," Mandella joked when asked how Indy Point has settled in to North American life.
The shiny chestnut ran the one-mile Wickerr in 1:32.74, .64 seconds off the track record set by Obviously.
"I learned he was pretty fast," Mandella remarked. "It looks like the mile and a quarter is not going to be a problem; his race record shows that. At first I had to be concerned maybe it would be too close a window to bring him here, but I think you can see he's a pretty healthy horse, strong. It doesn't look like the race the other day took anything out of him, I think he's just moved forward again and that's what he'd have to do to win this."
Mandella knows what it takes to win the Million; he did it in 2006 with The Tin Man.
"Things have to go your way (in the Million), but first you have to be good enough, never mind the other stuff—and we believe he is that," the trainer said.
There are 13 horses in this year's Million, the winners of group/grade I races on five different continents, with Yvonne Jacques' Grandeur pegged as the 7-2 favorite on the morning line. The Jeremy Noseda trainee won two grade II events in California when wintering here, and was runner-up by three-quarters of a length in the July 27 Sky Bet York Stakes (Eng-II) last time out.
But aside from Indy Point, the horse causing the most buzz among North American wagering types seems to be South African-bred The Apache, a 6-year-old son of Mogok belonging to the Essafinaat Limited racing arm of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum. This striking bay took the Dubai Al Rashidiya (UAE-II) at the beginning of the year, and raced competitively to top racemare Saijjhaa at Meydan before running fourth in the York last time out for trainer Mike de Kock.
Record-setting three-time Arlington Handicap (gr. IIIT) winner Rahystrada and speedster Nates Mineshaft are among the locals along with Finnegans Wake, Temeraine, and Real Solution, while the Marco Botti-trained Guest of Honour, Hunter's Light from the stable of Saeed bin Suroor, Pearl Bloodstock's Side Glance, and Invictus racing's Mull of Killough complete the field. Hunter's Light is the globetrotter of the field, having run in seven countries: Germany, England, Turkey, France, Italy, Dubai, and Singapore.
At noon CDT, the sun was shining in Arlington Heights, Il., with a temperature of 82 degrees and 32% humidity, and a gentle breeze blowing east at nine miles per hour. Other runners of interest on the card included Illinois Derby (gr. III) runner-up Fordubai in Race 1, the hard-knocking Strike Impact in Race 2, Penn Mile winner Rydilluc in the $500,000 Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), and Marketing Mix in the $750,000 Beverly D. (gr. IT).