Returning to top form and employing new tactics, Little Mike rallied from midpack and then held off Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution to win by a nose in the Grade 1, $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational for 3-year-olds and up on Saturday at Belmont Park.
Little Mike, a 6-year-old gelding who typically races on or just off the lead, settled in fifth early in the 1 ½-mile race under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, advanced into fourth entering the backstretch, and commenced his run to the lead following one mile in 1:35.70 from pacesetter Joes Blazing Aaron.
With five-sixteenths of a mile to travel, Little Mike struck the front as Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution, who with Joes Blazing Aaron formed a Ken and Sarah Ramsey coupled entry that went off as the 4-5 favorite, began their charges from the back. Real Solution drew on even terms with a furlong to travel, but Little Mike rebuffed that challenge and then fended off a furious late charge from Big Blue Kitten. Third-place finisher Real Solution, who reported home a length behind the winner, finished a head in front of Slumber.
Little Mike completed the distance in 2:25.00, the fastest Turf Classic since Sky Classic established a stakes record of 2:24.50 in 1992. Off at 7-1, Little Mike returned $16.80 for a $2 win wager.
It was the first triumph in five starts for Little Mike since his victory in the 2012 Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Turf.
"I was handicapping the race and after looking at it I told [trainer] Dale [Romans] that Little Mike's best race, in the Breeders' Cup Turf last year, was when he was off the pace," said Smith. "So I decided I was going to ride this horse the way Ramon [Dominguez] rode him [in the Breeders' Cup]. I can mimic all these jocks; I know how they all hold their hands. Ramon always puts one on the neck and one way out, and he's brilliant at it. So I did it, and he kept running and running and running. It worked! My hat's off to Ramon Dominguez."
Little Mike was fifth in the 2012 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, his final race prior to the Breeders' Cup Turf. Romans said Little Mike will aim for a title defense in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Turf in November at Santa Anita.