09/28/2013 6:28PM

Joe Hirsch Turf Classic: Little Mike noses out Big Blue Kitten

Michael Amoruso
Little Mike (No. 7), with Mike Smith aboard, wins the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic by a nose over Big Blue Kitten on Saturday.

ELMONT, N. Y. – Little Mike won three Grade 1 races last year, culminating with the Breeders’ Cup Turf. His worst showing in 2012, by far, came in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, in which he finished a distant fifth on a deep course he did not like.

Well, after Saturday, you could call Little Mike’s 2013 campaign the complete inverse of his 2012 season. Going into the day, Little Mike was 0 for 4 on the year. He was found wanting in both of his starts in Dubai, finished a creditable fourth after setting a strong pace in the United Nations Stakes, but finished a disappointing sixth in an unsuccessful defense of his title in the Arlington Million in his most recent start.

But on Saturday, Little Mike turned his 2013 around in the race he struggled so mightily in last year. Ignoring an abundance of other early speed horses and a formidable pair from the Chad Brown barn, Little Mike prevailed by a bob of the nose in the Grade 1, $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic to post a $16.80 upset. The win gave Little Mike a fees-paid berth to the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.

Little Mike prevailed over a hard-charging and slightly unlucky Big Blue Kitten, one of those aforementioned two from the Brown barn. Real Solution, the other Brown-trained starter, finished a length behind the top pair in third. It was only a head farther back in fourth to Slumber.

Little Mike, a 6-year-old gelding by Spanish Steps–Hay Jude, by Wavering Monarch, is owned by Priscilla Vaccarezza and is trained by Dale Romans. With Mike Smith aboard, Little Mike covered the 1 1/2 miles over a firm Widener turf course in 2:25 flat to earn $360,000 and boost his career earnings to almost $3.5 million.

Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution had a third member in a Ken and Sarah Ramsey-owned entry that went off as the 4-5 favorite in the form of rabbit Joes Blazing Aaron. Joes Blazing Aaron did his job by carving out honest early fractions of 23.92 seconds, 47.70, and 1:11.57 while at times being challenged by King Kreesa and Imagining.

Meanwhile, Little Mike, who has been on the lead far more often than not in his 25-race career, rated along in fifth, and then fourth, employing the strategy he used in his 17-1 upset of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Late on the far turn, Little Mike moved up outside to take a narrow lead, but late runners Real Solution and Big Blue Kitten were moving at this point and loomed dangerously. But Real Solution, who made a five-wide sweep on the far turn to look like a winner in upper stretch, hung when it counted.

Big Blue Kitten, on the other hand, had his momentum slowed when coming through a narrow opening between horses. Once he got rolling again, Big Blue Kitten closed fast but ran out of real estate and ran into a courageous opponent in Little Mike.

“His form hasn’t been that bad, if you analyze it,” Romans said of Little Mike after the Hirsch. “They’ve gone after him early in his last two races. We needed to change tactics and come from off of [the pace]. He just proved how versatile he is. I knew we needed to try something different to get him back to the level where he was last year.”

“I was handicapping the race,” Smith said, “and after looking at it, I told Dale that Little Mike’s best race, in the Breeders’ Cup Turf last year, was when he was off the pace.”

Smith added that he decided to ride Little Mike the way he was ridden in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup by Ramon Dominguez, who retired this year due to injury.

“This is a big win for the horse, and for the barn,” said Romans, who won the 2012 Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer. “We’ve had kind of a rough year, and this is our first Grade 1 of the year.”