What impressed me most about Little Mike this year was his ability to win while continually stepping up in both class and distance. In 2011, Little Mike ran five times, all at Gulfstream Park. He won three Grade 3 races in front-running fashion, two at 8 and on at 8.5 furlongs, but failed to hang on in the Gulfstream Park Turf. There, Little Mike finished sixth in what was his first Grade 1 try and his first try at 9 furlongs. After missing the summer and fall of 2011, Mike tuned up in December with a win in a 1 mile optional claiming race.
Little Mike started 2012 looking for a victory at 9 furlongs. It came in his first race of the year, the ungraded Sunshine Millions Turf. Little Mike then sought to repeat his Canadian Turf victory, but could not hold on and took a close fourth. Dale Romans could have kept Little Mike at Gulfstream following the loss and looked for a repeat in the Appleton, but instead he ambitiously sent Little Mike to Churchill for the 9 furlong, Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. Rather than falter in his toughest test to date, Little Mike stayed the distance en route to a commanding victory, much to the surprise of the betting public, who sent him off at double-digit odds. This was not to be the first time Little Mike outran people's expectations.
Dale Romans only sent Little Mike to Grade 1 races for the rest of 2012. He first shipped Little Mike to Hollywood Park, where he was respected by bettors and send off at 8-5. Little Mike disappointed his numerous backers that day, however, and finished third. From there, Dale Romans made an entry that proved to catapult Little Mike to the top of the 2012 turf class. Having been caught at a mile in his previous start, it was reasonable to doubt Little Mike in the Arlington Million. The prestigious Grade 1 race would be Little Mike's first start at 10 furlongs and first run over the lush Arlington turf course. Little Mike rose to the occasion again in the Million, keeping the field at bay with another commanding front-running performance.
The one-time Grade 3 Gulfstream miler had now taken two prestigious Grade 1 races at 9 and 10 furlongs, but once again, he did not rest on his laurels. Little Mike stepped up once more, to 12 furlongs, in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. However, Little Mike ran into a very good long distance turf horse, Point of Entry, who had already won the Grade 2 Elkhorn, the Grade 1 Man O' War, and the Grade 1 Sword Dancer. Point of Entry beat Little Mike for his third straight Grade 1 victory. The two would meet again in the Breeder's Cup Turf, where it seemed Point of Entry had the advantage, having shown himself to be the superior longer-distance turf horse up to that point.
Little Mike was not so easily deterred, but when the Breeder's Cup Turf began, it looked as all hope may have been lost right away. The speedy Turbo Compressor shot out of the gate, leaving Little Mike to settle in third. In every other Stakes race, win or loss, for two years, Little Mike was on the lead. Now, he was stalking the pace in his toughest test to date, but having already shown himself capable of exceeding distance and class expectations, it was no surprise that Little Mike adapted. He took the lead coming into the stretch and held off a hard-charging Point of Entry to notch his first win at 12 furlongs and third Grade 1 of the year.
While Wise Dan had a stellar 2012 campaign and, in my opinion, is a deserving Horse of the Year, he won four Grade 1 turf races, all at 1 mile. While Little Mike only won three Grade 1 races, he also won the Sunshine Millions Turf and was victorious at 9 furlongs (twice), 10 furlongs, and 12 furlongs. Rather than run on familiar courses or stay at a comfortable distance, Little Mike was continually challenged with longer distances and tougher company throughout the year. He cemented consideration for the 2012 Turf Male award by winning the Arlington Million put the capstone on a championship season by winning the biggest turf race of the year, each time having to go two furlongs further than he had won at previously. His Breeders’ Cup victory was all the more impressive considering he came from off the pace and still beat the classy Point of Entry. For rising to the challenge of facing tougher horses at longer distances throughout the year, I believe Little Mike should be 2012's Turf Male of the Year.
Little Mike was quite a story in 2012; after all, not many would have predicted his three big wins this year. A nice story is one thing, but a true champion, like Wise Dan, should be rewarded for his accomplishments. With a big win in the Clark Handicap last fall, he announced his candidacy as one of the best horses in the nation this year, and he not only met expectations, he exceeded them. His totality of excellence will almost certainly culminate with the Horse of the Year Award, but I also truly believe that his consistent superiority on the grass this year clearly points him out as the deserving winner of Champion Male Horse.
I think you hit on something there that is very telling, Alex. A portion of Little Mike’s appeal is that he continued to surprise in 2012. While both he and Wise Dan won a trio of grade 1 races on the turf this year, they did so with decidedly different odds. While Wise Dan was bet down to 9-5 against a world class field in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Little Mike was let go at 17-1 in the Turf. I believe the reason these odds are important in this debate, is because it goes a long way to show who the better overall horse was in 2012. The reason for this huge difference of odds, in races of similar quality, of course, boils down to past performances. While Little Mike could never string together two wins a row this year, Wise Dan was the picture of consistency, winning each of his four turf races, and did so with authority
After running strongly on both dirt and Polytrack early in the year, trainer Charles Lopresti moved his star to the grass, and the rest, as they say, is history. In four consecutive races, Wise Dan travelled all over North America to dominate all-comers in middle distance turf racing. From a yielding turf at Saratoga to a rock hard course at Santa Anita, the five-year-old son of Wiseman’s Ferry was way too good for his competition. In the Grade 2 Fourstardave, the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, and finally the Breeders’ Cup, Wise Dan left absolutely no doubt that he was the best horse as he won each race with devastating ease.
Distance racing is nice, and I commend Little Mike for stepping up and winning one of his two 12 furlong races this year, but it is not the only thing. Whether we like it or not, I would argue that middle distance turf racing in America has become every bit as important as their longer counterparts, and moreover, likely have surpassed them as far as depth of quality. No one had any qualms on voting Goldikova as the best of the turf females two years in a row, despite the fact that she was most certainly a “miler”. While I believe that Wise Dan possesses far more versatility than being only a miler on grass, I understand that his argument for Champion Turf Male this year rests solely on what he did at a mile on the turf, and just the same as Goldikova, I have no qualms with that.
I don’t think anyone could argue that Wise Dan was much the best North American middle distance grass horse this year, but what about Little Mike? As you mentioned, Point of Entry, was considered to be the best long-distance turf horse in the nation, and I don’t know if what happened in the Breeders’ Cup Turf was enough to completely change that thinking. Keep in mind that in the race before, Point of Entry defeated Little Mike by nearly 30 lengths. If Little Mike and Point of Entry raced again this weekend, I have little doubt that Point of Entry, and not Little Mike, would be the choice. And does anyone really believe that Little Mike would defeat Wise Dan at any middle distance? I know that I do not.
In the end, I believe this argument really comes down to the objective versus the subjective. Sure it would be nice to see the two horses each win one Eclipse Award, and yes, I understand the desire to root for the little horse who kept defying the odds to win big races this year, but I prefer to award the best horse. In 2012, the best grass horse in America was Wise Dan. While Little Mike carried his dangerous speed to wins every other race this year, Wise Dan thoroughly dominated his competition in such a way as to demand recognition as the best. Whether it was top North American milers from coast-to-coast, or some of the finest middle distance grass horses that came over from Europe, like Excelebration, Cityscape, and Moonlight Cloud; Wise Dan proved superior each time, and that is why I believe he is the right choice for Champion Turf Male of 2012.