Little Mike tries to control races from the front

Little Mike had always been considered a sprinter. The bay five-year-old had done his best work at no more than nine furlongs and usually at a mile.

His versatility shown through when he proved competitive on grass courses that were termed “firm”, “good”, “yielding”, or even “soft”.

But Little Mike had more than a mile in him.

Trainer Dale Romans brought jockey Ramon Dominguez over from New York to ride Little Mike in the Arlington Million XXX at Arlington Park, just downstate a bit from Chicago.

Romans believed Little Mike could go 10 furlongs (a mile-and-a-quarter) and still have the stamina left to win. The 46-year-old trainer even told owners Carlos and Priscilla Vaccarezza of his confidence. Romans recommended the owners should take the day and come to the mid-August stakes event.

Priscilla was born in Chicago, was raised in the suburb of Carol Stream and graduated from an area high school. But she had never been to Arlington Park.

Priscilla and Carlos decided to take their trainer’s advice and take a busman’s holiday to Arlington Park to see if Little Mike (named after the Vaccarezza’s 10-year-old son) could go wire-to-wire in the appropriately named Arlington Million.

Dominguez had flown in from Saratoga, where he was that meet’s leading rider.

Apprised of Little Mike’s running style, which was to come roaring from the starting gate and jet out to a lead, Dominguez had his horse alert and ready to move quickly. After 100 yards, the Little Mike-Dominguez racing combination had better than a length lead over his pursuers.

Once he had settled to a workmanlike pace, Little Mike slowed things down and wasn’t hurried into an energy-draining pace.

None of the other 10 thoroughbreds really came to challenge.

Little Mike’s advantage was never less than a length-and-a-half. His winning time over the 10-furlong course labeled “good” was an ordinary 2:02.44. He was never pressed. And his win made the trip taken by Carlos and Priscilla worth it because his winner’s share of the purse was $600,000.

The Arlington Million was a race where the winner qualified to enter a lofty race on Breeders’ Cup weekend at Santa Anita the first weekend in November.

Before jetting back to Saratoga, jockey Dominguez had his say to the gathered media. “He’s a special horse. He galloped home like a freight train. I hope to ride him again.”

Said trainer Romans: “It’s unbelievable. It’s a great race, one of the greatest in America.”

The mid-August success at Arlington Park gave Little Mike his 11th win in 19 career races and moved his earnings along to $1,466,412.

Earlier in the calendar year — and at shorter distances — he had posted wins in the Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. Many of Little Mike’s wins have come at Gulfstream Park and that Florida track has even been called his “home track”. But there had also been a fading-from-the-lead to fourth place in the Canadian Turf at Gulfstream and a third in the Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park.

The Arlington Million was the first time in his 19 career races that Little Mike had ever been 10 furlongs.

Romans will try to fit in another race before the November Breeders’ Cup weekend. A probable spot for Little Mike was last weekend’s Grade I Joe Hirsch Invitational at Belmont Park.

The Saturday event was scheduled for one mile-and-a-half — again, a distance Little Mike had never tried. The front-running style would not be changed if Romans decided to send out the sturdy gelding.

Should the Veccarezzas decide to test the world in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Little Mike will have to survive that one mile-and-a-half test.

Romans hasn’t made up his mind about whether to go the longer distance or try the significantly shorter distance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile on the same afternoon as the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Romans would use the result from the Hirsch to judge whether to attempt the 12-furlong distance for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“I really don’t have a clue,” Romans said recently. “The Belmont race on Saturday should tell us which way to go.”

The probable favorite in the $600,000 Hirsch was Point of Entry, an impressive three-length winner of the Sword Dancer Stakes at Saratoga in mid-August.

Point of Entry would be bringing four straight stakes wins to the Hirsch Invitational on Saturday.

Carlos Vaccarezza ventured a guess as to Little Mike’s chances at the longer distances. “If anyone asks, we can go a mile and a half . To be honest, I was on pins and needles in the Arlington Million. Nobody believed in this horse. This horse ran tremendously over just a “good” course that day.

“Dale Romans does a fantastic job.”

Should Little Mike give a creditible performance against Point of Entry (if both actually run) at the 12 furlongs, he will give trainer Romans all the more reason to fully consider (or even commit) to the Breeders’ Cup Turf Classic that comes up in only five weeks in California.

Priscilla might just take son Mike with her and sail on out to Santa Anita for her first look at the royal palms and purple-hued mountains hovering above the backstretch. And Little Mike might have shown his mettle by negotiating the longest distance he has ever attempted.

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