07/04/2013 3:09PM

Monmouth Park: Little Mike returns to action in United Nations

Tom Keyser
Little Mike makes his U.S. seasonal debut after racing twice in Dubai this spring.

OCEANPORT, N.J. – After a fruitless trip to Dubai, Little Mike returns to action Saturday in the Grade 1, $500,000 United Nations at Monmouth Park.

New Jersey’s premier grass race, the U.N. drew a field of eight for the 60th edition of the 1 3/8-mile stakes that originated at Atlantic City Race Course.

This will be the first U.S. start this season for Little Mike, a monster on the turf last year with Grade 1 wins in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, the Arlington Million, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

A 6-year-old gelding, Little Mike began the new year with two races at Meydan Racecourse, running eighth on the Tapeta synthetic surface in round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge before heading back to grass for an 11th-place finish in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on March  30.

Some horsemen believe a trip to Dubai, with the travel, the unfamiliar surroundings, and the heat knocks the stuffing out of a horse.

[MONMOUTH PARK: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Dale Romans doesn’t buy it. He believes Little Mike, with more than three months off, is ready.

“I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” Romans said. “If you go through and analyze the numbers, it’s more of a myth about how bad it knocks horses out. We just let him freshen up and get back on his feet.”

The ultimate goal for Little Mike is a Breeders’ Cup title defense. This could be a good starting point. The United Nations is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Win and You’re In stakes, securing the winner a berth in the Turf.

Romans had a number of options for Little Mike’s comeback. Timing, and the gelding’s success over this turf course, were deciding factors.

Little Mike is 2 for 2 on the grass here, having captured a maiden race and a first-level allowance in his 3-year-old season.

“It had a little something to do with it,” Romans said. “We know he likes the course. The timing is good to try and get back to the Arlington Million. This just looked like a good spot to get him started back.”

Little Mike will carry high weight of 123 pounds and concede from 3 to 5 pounds to his seven rivals. Joel Rosario will be aboard.

Big Blue Kitten, trained by Chad Brown, was a fast-closing second in the Grade 2 Monmouth Stakes last month, the U.N. prep. While John Velazquez and Boisterous had an ideal trip en route to victory, Big Blue Kitten took the overland route with Joe Bravo aboard for the first time.

“He ran a big race,” Bravo said. “If I knew the horse a little better, I think I might have had a really good shot to beat Johnny that day. I was forced to go outside of the gray horse [Tune Me In] when he drifted out. If I could have stayed inside, I think I would have had a good shot.”

Once clear, Big Blue Kitten was full of run.

“The last sixteenth of a mile, we were gathering ground very impressively,” Bravo said. “I’m excited to sit back on him.”

Bravo knows Little Mike very well, having been his regular pilot until last year’s Arlington Million.

“You never underestimate a good horse, and Little Mike is a very good horse,” Bravo said. “Hopefully, the race sets up for me.”

Teaks North, 4 for 4 over this course, returns for the first time since winning the 2011 U.N. He has been cataloged to sell at the inaugural Fasig-Tipton Kentucky summer selected horses of racing age auction on July 15 in Lexington, Ky.

Skyring captured the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes for the Hall of Fame team of trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens one race on the Pimlico card before they combined to win the Preakness with Oxbow.

Willcox Inn, Russian Greek, Harrods Creek, and Hangover Kid complete the field.