This year's $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) features a rematch of the first two finishers in 2012, Little Mike and Point of Entry , but the road back to Santa Anita Park Nov. 2 has been anything but smooth for either horse.
Point of Entry suffered a non-displaced condylar fracture of the left hind cannon bone in his victory in the June 8 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) that required surgery and has not raced since. Little Mike "wrenched an ankle a little bit" in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) March 30, trainer Dale Romans said, and was slow returning to form following a three-month absence.
But both Romans and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said during a Breeders' Cup press conference Oct. 31 that their respective charges appear to be back to their best heading into the 1 1/2-mile Turf. Both galloped on the main track earlier in the morning.
Phipps Stable's Point of Entry is 4-1 on the morning line, while Priscilla and Carlo Vaccarezza's Little Mike is pegged at 6-1.
After returning from his injury, 6-year-old Little Mike ran fourth in the United Nations, then finished sixth in the Arlington Million (both gr. IT), both after setting the pace. The Florida-bred Spanish Steps gelding signaled a return to form while getting a stalking trip in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT) Sept. 28 at Belmont Park, holding off Turf rival Big Blue Kitten by a nose.
"He didn't run as badly as people thought he did in those first two races (back), but it took him a little while to get going," Romans said of Little Mike. "He just kept improving and he was training like his old self prior to the Joe Hirsch, so we decided to give him one more chance. It looked like he was going to be caught in the final sixteenth but he just kept going."
Romans said Little Mike showed some versatility by coming from fifth in the Hirsch after six furlongs to forge the lead under Mike Smith for the first time, then held on with his former tenacity. In the BC Turf, he could be winging on the front end again because there doesn't appear to be much speed in the lineup, Romans acknowledged.
"He could be on the lead or he could rate," Romans said prior to the press conference. "But if there's no pace, we'll let him go. He's done that very successfully before. He's got a Hall of Fame jockey on him. The good thing is he is very versatile."
Later on, Smith noted that Little Mike was rated in last year's Breeders' Cup, when he defeated the late-running Point of Entry by half a length with Ramon Dominguez aboard. That inspired him to try similar tactics in the Joe Hirsch.
"There does not appear to be as much pace as there was in his last race," Smith said. "Tactics could change but we'll just have to see what happens."
Romans said he has been keeping Little Mike on the main track during his preparation at Santa Anita because of concern about the firmness of the turf course. But he said the bay "likes a harder surface. He likes it here a lot."
McGaughey said Point of Entry has looked progressively better since returning from his layup.
"He's a very talented, athletic type of horse," he said. "He's helped us along and done everything we've asked him to do. He's progressed off everything we did. Every time he worked, it was better than the time before. Where we stand now, we won't know until Saturday afternoon. But I think he's a very, very, very good horse and I have a feeling he's going to show that Saturday."
Point of Entry will have Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, his regular rider, aboard from post 8. The 5-year-old son of Dynaformer began the year with a victory in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. IT) in February, his only other start besides the Manhattan since last year's BC Turf. Point of Entry lacked room along the inside in last year's race and surged too late to catch Little Mike. It is his only loss in the past eight races, including five grade I events.
"He deserves to win a race like this, especially with what happened last year," McGaughey said. "I'm pumped up that he's got the opportunity to give it a try again."
John Gosden, trainer of 3-1 morning line favorite The Fugue, was also on hand for the press conference. He said he and owner Andrew Lloyd-Webber chose to face males in the Turf with his group I-winning filly rather than her own sex in the 1 1/4-mile Filly & Mare Turf (g. IT), where she ran third with traffic trouble last year.
"It was a bold move when you have the short-priced favorite in the other race," Gosden said, adding that the thinking was that she might find "a little more daylight" in the longer race.
"It's very easy to get caught on the rail going a mile-and-a-quarter here," he said.
Under jockey William Buick, The Fugue turned it loose through the stretch run during her gallop over the turf course Oct. 31.