Priscilla Vaccarezza's homebred Little Mike bounced back from a drubbing in
the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at a boggy Belmont Park to
upstage Point of Entry and defending champion St Nicholas Abbey in Saturday's
Breeders' Cup Turf in record time at Santa Anita. Widely regarded as a
doubtful prospect at the 1 1/2-mile trip with a hot pace scenario on tap, the
Dale Romans charge showed a new dimension by drafting behind the pacesetters,
pouncing at the top of the stretch, and blazing the firm turf in 2:22.83.
Aside from setting a new stakes record for the Breeders' Cup Turf, Little Mike essentially tied Hawkster's course record of 2:22 4/5. Hawskter established the benchmark in his victory in the Grade 1 Oak Tree Invitational on October 14, 1989, before the time was recorded in hundredths.
Little Mike, front-running winner of both the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Grade 1 Arlington Million this season, was overlooked at 17-1 in the Breeders' Cup. The Joe Hirsch was his only previous attempt at 1 1/2 miles, and he folded badly on the yielding ground to finish fifth, beaten 28 1/2 lengths by Point of Entry, the 2-1 favorite in the Turf.
So disappointing was Little Mike's performance at Belmont that Romans seriously considered shortening him up for the Breeders' Cup Mile. Indeed, at the pre-entry stage, his first preference was the Mile. But Romans ended up settling for the Turf with Little Mike as well as Dullahan. His deep-closing three-year-old never landed a blow, but Little Mike proved his trainer correct -- and his loyal followers, who reaped rewards to the tune of $36.60, $12.20 and $7.80.
When the gate opened, Turbo Compressor was driven to the lead and roared through fast fractions of :23 4/5, :46 3/5, 1:10 4/5 and 1:35 1/5. Optimizer gave chase in second, while Little Mike was drafting in a rail-skimming third beneath Ramon Dominguez. Japan's hope Trailblazer and Slim Shadey followed a little further back. St Nicholas Abbey and Point of Entry were held up in the latter part of the field.
Rounding the final turn, Little Mike went after Turbo Compressor through 1
1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5, but Trailblazer was making the best headway of all wider
out. Although Japanese hearts surged as he briefly appeared to have all of the
momentum entering the stretch, Trailblazer's bid stalled almost as quickly.
Little Mike, in contrast, revved into another gear. Quickening remarkably well off the torrid pace, he opened up by daylight from the closers. Point of Entry gained ground along the inside, and St Nicholas Abbey improved on the outside, but neither could reel in Little Mike in full flight.
"Our first reaction after the race in New York (the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic) was to shorten him up," Romans said, "but we had been trying to stretch him out all year, so we decided to stick to our plan.
"We talked over the race last night and thought those two horses (Turbo Compressor and Optimizer) would be gunning for the lead. We were going to try to sit right off of them. He showed he could rate."
"I couldn't commit to being on the lead," Dominguez said. "I did get a great trip right off the leaders. When I asked him to run, he gave me a great kick."
Point of Entry angled around Little Mike in the final yards, and reduced the margin to a half-length at the wire. Connections of the beaten favorite were left wondering what might have been.
"I didn't get the position I wanted," jockey John Velazquez said. "I got slammed coming out of the gate. And the horse in front of me kept coming in and out. By the time I got out, it was too late. He (Point of Entry) was by far the best horse in the race."
"He was further back today with that quick pace," said Jennifer Patterson,
assistant to trainer Shug McGaughey. "He's a very versatile horse and he'll do
what you ask him.
"It's a shorter stretch here, and he had a lot to make up. With this fast turf, they don't come right back to you. With the fractions that fast, I wasn't unhappy with his position.
"Maybe he could have moved a little earlier, but that's easy to say now," Patterson opined. "It was a tough beat, but he's still a very nice horse. He ran his heart out and tried as hard as he could, but just came up a little short. We've had a great year with him and hopefully we'll another great year with him next year."
St Nicholas Abbey checked in another three-quarters of a length back in third. He thus failed to join High Chaparral (2002-03) and Conduit (2008-09) as two-time Turf winners, and instead became the seventh horse to fail in a repeat bid.
"The trip was a good one for me," jockey Joseph O'Brien said. "He relaxed well off a fast pace. When I asked him, he responded. We had to go a bit wide on the turn, but nonetheless he ran very well."
"He gave a good solid run," trainer Aidan O'Brien said. "He didn't quite pick up like he did last year. He had a hard race in the Arc (11th on heavy ground). He came with a nice run. He did nothing wrong and it's great to be third."
Trailblazer tired to fourth, just holding the French filly Shareta off by a neck. They were trailed by Kindergarden Kid, Cogito, Slim Shadey, Dullahan, Treasure Beach, Optimizer and Turbo Compressor.
The collapse of the early pace factors just underscores Little Mike's
achievement, which has now put him into the discussion for a divisional Eclipse
Award. His resume now reads 21-12-2-1, and he more than doubled his bankroll to
"He's always been an overachiever," Romans said, "but he does deserve to be champion."
The Florida-bred was branded as a Gulfstream Park specialist for some time, in light of his scores in the Grade 3 Ft. Lauderdale, Grade 3 Canadian Turf and Grade 3 Appleton in 2011.
Sidelined for more than eight months by a condylar fracture, Little Mike picked up right where he left off with an allowance win last December, and extended his winning streak to four in the January 28 Florida Sunshine Millions Turf. Little Mike's skein ended with a fourth in the March 3 renewal of the Canadian Turf, surrendering to the victorious Doubles Partner and third Data Link, but he turned the tables on both in the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day. He shipped to Hollywood Park for the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile on June 30, where he was embroiled in a speed duel and tired to third.
Little Mike next stretched out to 1 1/4 miles for the Arlington Million and proceeded to wire an international field. He attempted to do the same in the Joe Hirsch, but surrendered uncharacteristically early.
Sired by Spanish Steps, the five-year-old bay gelding is out of the winning Wavering Monarch mare Hay Jude. He is a half-brother to Grade 3-placed multiple stakes hero Little Nick. The only other prominent family members in recent years are multiple Grade 3-placed stakes scorer Linear and Gold Pleasure, a Group 1 victor in his native Brazil.