01/08/2013 6:45PM

2012 Eclipse Awards: Little Mike

photo by: Barbara D. Livingston

It wasn’t until a few days before Breeders’ Cup Saturday that trainer Dale Romans even decided Little Mike would start in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Little Mike also had been pre-entered in the Mile, and neither race seemed ideal. Go in the Mile, and Little Mike’s early pace would butt up against California speedball Obviously. But on paper and reputation, Little Mike was a middle-distance runner who couldn’t stay the Turf’s 1 1/2 miles: In his first try at the distance, Little Mike lost by almost 30 lengths.

Dale Romans didn’t make a lot of poor decisions in 2012, when he won 20 graded stakes, nearly double his previous best annual total. Romans chose the Turf over the Mile, and that call has given Little Mike a chance to earn two Eclipse Awards: one as the top North American turf horse of the season, and one as the top older male.

Little Mike won the Turf by a half-length over Point of Entry as a 17-1 longshot, and the odds of his winning the race from off the pace would have been at least double that price. Little Mike had been the early leader in his 10 previous starts, but somehow, he and Ramon Domginuez rated behind two horses in the first part of the Turf before moving to take the lead in upper stretch. Little Mike sprinted home just fast enough to hold off onrushing Point of Entry.

“It didn’t surprise me that he came from off the lead, because that was the plan,” Romans said. “I just told Ramon that if they outrun him in the first 100 yards, just sit there. This is a smart horse. He got in a rhythm, and the rest was history.”

The Turf victory capped an improbable campaign that saw Little Mike become the first horse to win the Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup Turf in the same year. Add to that historic double a 2 1/2-length victory in the most important early-season North American grass race, the Grade 1 Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day, and Little Mike’s season shines brightly.

It was not easy to see coming. Little Mike, a gelding, entered his 5-year-old year looking like a perfectly solid Grade 3-type grass miler. He had progressed instantly during the summer of 2010 when then-trainer Allen Iwinski switched him from dirt sprints to turf routes, and Little Mike got good enough in 2011 to win a pair of Grade 3 grass miles in Florida, by which time Romans had taken over training. His 2012 campaign began with a win over modest competition in the Sunshine Millions Turf and a fourth in the Grade 3 Canadian Turf Handicap. Despite that loss, Romans bumped Little Mike to Grade 1 competition while stretching him out to 1 1/8 miles in the Turf Classic.

“I know the horse well enough not to let one off day make me lose respect for him,” Romans said. “I thought a different pace scenario in longer races might really help him. I had in mind to stretch him out [in 2011], but in his last work before the Turf Classic he condylar-fractured. He just doesn’t get tired.”

Little Mike, bred by Carlo Vaccarezza and owned by Priscilla Vaccarezza, is by far the best horse sired by Spanish Steps. His dam, Hay Jude, was a modest campaigner on the Chicago circuit. One of her previous foals, Little Nick, was a stakes-class turf runner. But nothing like Little Mike – a potential champion.