With victories last season in the Breeders' Cup Turf, Arlington Million and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Little Mike plundered three of the country's most significant turf stakes. On Saturday, the six-year-old will set his eyes on the proverbial granddaddy of them all, the Grade 1, $500,000 United Nations.
Presently contested over 1 3/8 miles at Monmouth Park, the United Nations was first run in 1953 at Atlantic City, which hosted the event for more than four decades. It is among the oldest continuously run stakes in the country which originated as a grass event.
Little Mike's three big wins in 2012 resulted in his becoming a finalist for champion turf male honors, but the Dale Romans trainee missed a large share of the first half of the season rebounding from a winter trip to Dubai. His main goal, the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on March 30, resulted in an 11th place finish for the Spanish Steps gelding. His fared little better in his local prep for that, finishing eighth in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 on Meydan's Tapeta surface.
In targeting the United Nations, Little Mike returns to a familiar haunt having won a maiden and an allowance over the local turf back in 2010. The versatility he displayed in winning the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita, coming from slightly off the pace going 1 ½ miles, should serve him well as there are several other pace elements in the field.
One is Teaks North, who seeks to join a select group of two-time United Nations winners. Hero of the 2011 renewal, the six-year-old gelding hit a rough patch soon afterwards that lasted throughout 2012. Teaks North has turned things around this season, winning twice in four outings, including the Sunshine Millions Turf and an overnight stakes at Belmont in most recent start. The Michelle Nevin trainee is also undefeated over the Monmouth sod in four attempts.
Previous two-time winners of the United Nations were Round Table (1957, 1959), Mongo (1962-63), Noble Dancer II (1978-79), Manila (1986-87), Sandpit (1995-96), English Channel (2006-07), and Presious Passion (2008-09).
Also expected to show early foot is the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Skyring, who parlayed a front-running trip over a speed-friendly turf into a 24-1 upset win in the May 18 Dixie at Pimlico. A son of two-time United Nations winner English Channel, Skyring has yet to run beyond 1 3/16 miles, and will be piloted in this endeavor by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens.
Willcox Inn, surely hampered to some extend by the Pimico turf bias, nonetheless got within a half-length of Skyring at the finish of the Dixie after a strong stretch run. The Grade 2 veteran lost by the same margin in the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial at Fair Grounds two back, and seeks to end a stakes drought that dates to the Hawthorne Derby in October 2011.
Another hard to discount is winner Big Blue Kitten, who captured a pair of allowances earlier this year and placed in the Fort Lauderdale and the Monmouth, both Grade 2 events.
The field is completed by the multiple Grade 2-placed Harrods Creek, and the seemingly overmatched Russian Greek and Hangover Kid.
The supporting feature Saturday is the Grade 3, $150,000 Salvator Mile for older horses on the main track. The likely favorites are Gulfstream Park Handicap winner Discreet Dancer and Hal's Hope scorer Csaba, who invades from Calder. An intriguing rival to that pair is Lucy's Bob Boy, who makes his first start outside Charles Town after winning 13 of his first 16 starts at the West Virginia oval.