Under a crafty front-running ride from Ramon Dominguez, Little Mike led every step of the way to claim the 30th running of the $1 million Arlington Million (gr. IT) by 1 1/2 lengths Aug. 18 at Arlington Park (VIDEO).
Dominguez was able to coax 1 1/4 miles out of Little Mike, who was attempting the distance for the first time, in a winning time of 2:02.44 over a course rated "good." Little Mike was one of three horses in the evenly-matched field sent off at odds of 7-2.
The 2012 Arlington Million/International Festival of Racing Day crowd of 34,022 represented a 10% increase from the 31,069 that attended the 2011 event. It also was the largest Million Day crowd since the current facility opened in 1989 and the fourth highest in the 30-year history of the Arlington Million.
Little Mike won the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs in May. He is trained by Dale Romans for owner Priscilla Vaccarezza, whose husband Carlo bred the 5-year-old son of Spanish Steps. The bay gelding is out of the Wavering Monarch mare Hay Jude.
"I'm on cloud nine right now," Carlo Vaccarezza told HRTV. "I can't believe this horse, to go wire to wire. He's something, indescribable."
Little Mike prevented a European sweep of the major turf events at Arlington Park on its day of international racing. Irish-bred Jakkalberry won the inaugural American St. Leger at 1 11/16 miles, French-bred Bayrir took the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/4 miles, and Irish-bred I'm A Dreamer captured the Beverly D. (gr. IT).
Little Mike locked up a berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Santa Anita Park Nov. 3 with the victory. The Arlington Million is a "Win & You're In" Breeders' Cup Challenge event.
"We'll be there," Romans said after collecting his first Arlington Million victory.
"If anyone asks, we can go a mile and a half," Carlo Vaccarezza added. "To be honest, I was on pins and needles. Nobody believed in this horse."
Dominguez, the nation's Eclipse Award-winning rider the past two years, won the Million for the second time in his career after taking the race aboard Gio Ponti in 2009.
Leaving from gate 4, Little Mike went directly to the front while angling to the inside to lead Willcox Inn and Colombian through the stretch run for the first time. Dominguez slowed the pace to a crawl while Little Mike opened up by about 1 1/2 lengths after an opening quarter mile in :25.10. The half went in :49.95 and six furlongs in 1:15.03 as Willcox Inn and Colombian continued to stalk on the final turn.
"I felt good about him. He was training so well, and his two best races were a mile and an eighth, and nobody thought he could go a mile and an eighth," Romans said. "So a little different pace scenario, when you go three-quarters in 1:15 he's going to be hard to catch."
Little Mike reached the quarter pole in a soft 1:39.54. Leaving the bend, the front-runner opened up on the rest and enjoyed a daylight advantage of nearly five lengths lengths approaching mid-stretch.
"He was running very comfortable," Dominguez said. "Turning for home when I decided to let him run, he beautifully started opening up. I wasn't sure how slow we were going. I got to the three-eighths pole and he started to open it up. I tried to slow him down to this point (before) but from now on I'm going to let him spring home. He galloped home like a freight train."
The British-bred Afsare emerged from mid-pack in upper stretch to give chase and gained steadily while never seriously threatening the winner. Afsare, ridden by Kieren Fallon, finished 1 1/2 lengths clear in the runner-up spot. Colombian, always in contention for William Buick, settled for a tie for third with the rallying Rahystrada, who was attempting the Arlington Million for the third time with Julien Leparoux aboard.
"I knew what was happening," Fallon said in reference to the slow pace, "and there was nothing I could do. I had to ride my horse to win, and there was no pace. His antics (rearing before the start) didn't cost him. He just acts like a spoiled child sometimes and didn't want the gate. He had a big race in him."
Little Mike had not been out since finishing third as the favorite in the Shoemaker Mile (gr. IT) at Betfair Hollywood Park June 30. Prior to his win in the Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby undercard, he was mainly known for his stakes exploits at Gulfstream Park, where he won the Ft. Lauderdale (gr. IIIT), Canadian Turf (gr. IIIT), and Emirates Appleton (gr. IIIT) in 2011, and the Florida Sunshine Millions Turf in January.
The Arlington Million, worth $570,000 to the winner, swelled Little Mike's career bankroll to $1,436,412. The good-looking bay has won 11 of 19 lifetime starts with two seconds and a third.
Under equal weights of 126 pounds, Little Mike paid $9.80, $5.60, and $4.40. Afsare, who kicked over the temporary rail when starters attempted to blindfold him prior to loading, returned $6.60 and $4.80. The exacta was worth $63.40. Rahystrada paid $4.40 and Colombian was $3.80 to show.
"He really needed firmer ground, but he ran a very solid race," jockey Colm O'Donoghue said of Crackerjack King. "He handled the ground good and traveled well, but he really needs more firm going to fire his best shot."
The all-sources commingled handle of $14,785,748 was 14% higher than the $13,017,554 wagered on the 2011 Million Day card. On track, the $2,891,660 bet was 13% higher than the $2,562,613 handled the previous year.