WOODFORD RESERVE TURF CLASSIC | PURSE: $561,500 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 1 | 1 1/8 MILES (TURF)
Although three dedicated front runners entered the gate in Saturday's $561,500 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, only one was intent on sticking to his script -- Priscilla Vaccarezza's homebred Little Mike -- and his tactics paid off to garner his first Grade 1 victory. With regular rider Joe Bravo rationing out his speed, the 12-1 chance never relinquished his advantage, and kept the Dale Romans barn hot heading into the Kentucky Derby.
The Romans-trained Silver Max had likewise dominated Friday's Grade 2 American Turf, and earlier Saturday, Shackleford landed the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes. Little Mike made it a hat trick, one race before Dullahan would represent the barn in Derby 138.
As Little Mike strode forward and angled out from his rail post, defending champion Get Stormy didn't try to go with him, let alone duplicate his front-running success of a year ago. He was throttled back to track the pace, in company with Turbo Compressor, who also took back rather than show his customary dash.
Little Mike reeled off his first quarter in :23 3/5, but then slowed the tempo down through fractions of :48 1/5 and 1:12 4/5. Winding it up again turning for home, the Florida-bred gelding gave the field the slip. He opened up by 3 1/2 lengths when reaching the mile mark in 1:36 2/5, and his margin was still a healthy 2 1/2 lengths at the wire. Little Mike finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 4/5 on the good turf, sparking mutuels of $26.40, $13.40 and $8.20.
"I thought he was the fastest horse in the race, period," Romans said. "I didn't know if he could go as far as he needed to, but we weren't going to take back. We weren't going to give Get Stormy an easy race. We decided to take it to him.
"He had condylar fracture last year, so this is a pretty sweet victory for Little Mike. He's a super horse and he deserves this Grade 1."
"I've been riding for 24 years," Bravo said, "and I can't say a horse will stick out more in my mind than Little Mike will. He's a horse that's overcome so much.
"I figured with the rain -- the water runs down to the inside -- that I thought it was better to stay off [the rail]. Who says there wasn't a question [about getting 1 1/8 miles]? I had a lot of questions, but Little Mike speaks."
California invader Slim Shadey won the battle for the minors by a half-length. Brilliant Speed grabbed third by a whisker from Doubles Partner. Data Link, Papaw Bodie, 2-1 favorite Turallure, Turbo Compressor, Get Stormy, Boxeur des Rues and Al Khali completed the order under the wire.
Brilliant Speed's connections believed that traffic trouble cost him second place.
"I got to the three-eighths pole," jockey John Velazquez said, "and I've got the horse in front of me going in and out, in and out, so now I have to wait behind him or go around him. He kept going out, so I went back to the inside, and he came back to the inside again. So now I'm steadying, waiting to see what he's going to do. Then Javier Castellano's and Todd Pletcher's horse [Doubles Partner] went through, so I had to follow him. It definitely cost me second money."
"It looked like Johnny was looking for a spot where he could save some ground," trainer Tom Albertrani said, "and you could see where he was kind of in and out. I think he was waiting until the last minute trying to get some good, clear room. But he finished good and it was promising to see him come back first race off the layoff and run a good race here. He probably wants to go a little bit further, too."
Turallure's trainer Charles Lopresti cited the lack of pace for his undoing.
"There was no speed up front and it just didn't come back. It didn't set up for us," Lopresti said. "He kicked on, but there wasn't anything to really run at. I think that's the way it unfolded. It wasn't the kind of race that set up for us."
Little Mike was best known as a Gulfstream Park specialist, in light of his scores in the Grade 3 Ft. Lauderdale, Grade 3 Canadian Turf and Grade 3 Appleton in 2011 before going to the sidelines with his injury. He picked up right where he left off with a December 22 allowance win, 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 a bigger stage here. Little Mike improved his record to 17-10-2-0, $830,412.
Sired by Spanish Steps, the five-year-old bay is out of the winning Wavering Monarch mare Hay Jude, making him 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.