For Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt's Mitole , it's all about doing what he does best in his last few races before beginning the new phase of his life next season as a stallion.
As much as Mitole ignited some wild thoughts that he might test the two-turn waters after he stretched out to a flat mile and posted a three-quarter-length victory in the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (G1)—a stakes dubbed as "The Race of the Year" with two-time Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) winner Thunder Snow and a two-turn standout from Bob Baffert's barn in McKinzie in the field—his follow-up assignment is bringing him back to his roots as a sprinter.
The winner of his past seven races for trainer Steve Asmussen will return to the six-furlong distance of nine of his 11 starts as he looms a heavy favorite in the $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (G1) July 27 at Saratoga Race Course.
"Mitole will probably be retired and go to stud at the end of this year unless something major changes," Bill Heiligbrodt said. "And, personally, I think it's best for us to stick to what he has been doing. He hasn't showed any indication that he couldn't run longer, but when you have a horse that's good at what he does, it's probably best to stay where you are."
Heiligbrodt hopes to complete a stud deal soon for his son of Eskendereya out of the Indian Charlie mare Indian Miss, and that fortunate farm will be getting a colt who boasts the exciting résumé of being a dominant sprinter with enough speed and class to handle top-class competition at a demanding one-turn mile in a race with a prestigious list of winners that includes Ghostzapper , Holy Bull and Forego.
"He's been a really great and special horse, so I've been very lucky," Heiligbrodt said. "He can get beat Saturday, but what he's done is pretty spectacular. Nobody could have done the training job with this horse that Steve has. It's been a special thing for Corinne and I to have a horse this fast."
The Met Mile marked a progression for Mitole, who made his first nine starts at six furlongs. A victory in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by Twinspires.com (G1) May 4 propelled him into the Met Mile, where he defeated McKinzie by less than a length in a blistering 1:32.75, with Thunder Snow, who has earned more than $16.5 million, another neck back in third.
The competition Saturday for the 125-pound highweight will not carry the same name recognition as the cast of characters in the Met Mile but are formidable nonetheless. Raymond Mamone's Imperial Hint (123 pounds) has earned more than $1.8 million and won last year's Vanderbilt. The Florida-bred son of Imperialism was the 9-5 favorite in the 2018 TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) but finished third at the World Championships and third in his most recent start, the March 30 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News (G1).
Mr. Amore Stable's Firenze Fire was fifth in the Met Mile but is a grade 1 winner and is grade 1-placed at Saratoga. Ivy Hui, Amy E. Dunne, Deron Pearson, and trainer Patrick Biancone's Diamond Oops is coming off a win in the Smile Sprint Stakes (G3), and Courtlandt Farms' Strike Power was second in the True North Stakes (G2).
Yet based on Mitole's performances in races such as the Met Mile and a 2 3/4-length triumph in the $490,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3), they, and the other two starters, will need to pick up their game. Heiligbrodt said Mitole came out of the Met Mile in good order and seems ready for another sharp effort in what will be the fifth racetrack in his past six starts.
"I saw him Tuesday for the first time since the Met Mile, and he looks pretty good. He looks like he always does. He's a pretty calm and relaxed horse, which helps make him what he is," he said. "He's been training good, so we'll see what happens. This is another new track for him. He's shortening back up, but he's won seven in a row. He's a fast horse—that's all I can tell you."
Mitole has earned $1,642,910 from eight wins in 11 starts, which dwarfs his original sale price. He was bought by Chestnut Valley Farm for $20,000 from the Eaton Sales consignment at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. A year later, he went to East Hickman Bloodstock for $140,000 from the Grassroots Training and Sales consignment at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training.
The seven-furlong, $600,000 Forego Stakes Presented by Encore Boston Harbor (G1) at the Spa looms as an inviting next start for Mitole, and Heiligbrodt said the Aug. 24 stakes could be Mitole's final start before the Breeders' Cup, when it will be decision time for the connections. He seems a natural fit for the six-furlong BC Sprint, but by winning the Met Mile, Mitole earned a "Win and You're In" free spot in the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), which at Santa Anita Park is contested at two turns.
"My hope is that he stays sound, and if we can finish the year, it will be great if we get a chance to run in the Breeders' Cup. He has to race at least one more time between now and the Breeders' Cup, and the Forego is a month away and it's seven furlongs, which puts us between the Sprint and the Mile," Heiligbrodt said. "We might look at both (Breeders' Cup) races and see what the competition looks like in each race. I have an expert named Steve Asmussen. He's lined out the path for this horse. We've done well together, and I'm going to defer to him on that."
In the meantime, the Heiligbrodts will be content to keep the winning streak alive in the Vanderbilt and add to the laurels that have carried Mitole into Horse of the Year conversations and the No. 2 spot in the most recent National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top Thoroughbred poll.
"To win the Met Mile, with that kind of competition, and get back-to-back grade 1 wins off the Derby Day race, that's about all you can ask of a horse today," Bill Heiligbrodt said. "I hope he performs like he has. He's never been inconsistent. It's really something to own him."
Saratoga Race Course, Saturday, July 27, 2019, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Mitole (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 125 Steven M. Asmussen 1/1 2 2Strike Power (KY) John R. Velazquez 117 Mark A. Hennig 6/1 3 3Imperial Hint (FL) Javier Castellano 123 Luis Carvajal, Jr. 3/1 4 4Firenze Fire (FL) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 118 Jason Servis 9/2 5 5Mr. Crow (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 116 Ben Colebrook 15/1 6 6Diamond Oops (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 116 Patrick L. Biancone 12/1 7 7Do Share (KY) Luis Saez 116 Michael J. Maker 15/1
Saratoga Race Course, Saturday, July 27, 2019, Race 9