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Little Mike faces tough task to steal another Million

Little Mike saved plenty for the finish as the lone speed last year but may have to change tactics for his Million title defense (Four Footed Fotos)

The Arlington Million, the Thoroughbred world's first $1 million race when it was inaugurated in 1981, officially has never been won by the same horse in consecutive years, though the legendary John Henry won two of the first four runnings and Powerscourt was disqualified in 2004 before coming back the following year to win without controversy. On Saturday, Little Mike will be the latest horse to attempt a successful title defense of the 1 1/4-mile grass fixture when he faces 12 others, half of which are based in Europe.

Despite having engineered an upset in the nine-furlong Woodford Reserve Turf Classic three months previously, there was some doubt a year ago in Little Mike's ability to get the Million's 10 furlongs as the Dale Romans-trained gelding had earned a reputation as a speedy miler. However, under smart handling by the now-retired Ramon Dominguez, Little Mike, much like he did in the Churchill Downs feature, seized the lead in a paceless race and left his rivals for dead with a quick burst in the stretch that resulted in his building an insurmountable lead.

Little Mike later showed versatility, upsetting the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Cup Turf coming from slightly off the pace. Since that victory at Santa Anita, however, Little Mike has struggled. An extensive recovery from a trip to Dubai, where he faltered in stakes on Tapeta and grass, kept the 2012 Eclipse Award finalist out of some important U.S. stakes this spring. He only returned to action in last month's 1 3/8-mile United Nations at Atlantic City, where he weakened to fourth after leading most of the way.

On paper, there appears to be only one other speed horse who might disrupt Little Mike's attempt at another wire job. Nates Mineshaft, a Grade 2 winner on dirt, led throughout in taking a local turf allowance on July 27, but has never faced this quality of competition on the surface.

Two of the other major American-based contenders, Indy Point and Real Solution, began their careers overseas. Indy Point, a multiple Group 1 winner in Argentina and a strong second in that country's premier event, the Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini, had a successful U.S. debut on July 24 when he prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths in the restricted Wickerr over a mile at Del Mar. Real Solution, a stakes winner in Italy last season, finished fourth in the May 4 Fort Marcy at Belmont before posting a solid third-place effort behind Point of Entry in the Manhattan Handicap over the same course in early June.

The remainder of the domestic candidates have form to find. The nine-year-old Rahystrada, a three-time winner of the Arlington Handicap, has finished fourth, fifth and third in three previous Million attempts, and neither Temeraine or Finnegans Wake have won a stakes of any kind.

Grandeur displayed a dynamic late kick when competing in the states last fall (Benoit Photo)

The European contingent is led by Grandeur, who made a successful excursion to the U.S. last fall when taking the Hollywood Turf Cup and the Twilight Derby and placing second in the Hollywood Derby. The gray four-year-old has worked his way back into shape over the past month, finishing fourth in the Princess of Wales's at Newmarket and a close second in the York Stakes three weeks ago.

Another who should move forward off a recent outing is Hunter's Light, a Godolphin colorbearer who captured Group 1 events in Italy and Dubai over the past year. He enters off a third in the Bayerisches Zuchtrennen, a Group 1 event over 1 1/4 miles in Munich.

The Apache, a Group 1-winning native of South Africa, enjoyed a successful winter in Dubai, winning the Al Rashidiya and finishing second in the Jebel Hatta and the Dubai Duty Free. He, too, should move forward off his latest outing, a fourth-place effort in the York Stakes following a four-month break.

The remainder of the foreign invaders include Mull of Killough and Guest of Honour, who were separated by a half-length when settling for minor awards in the July 13 Summer Mile at Ascot, and the multiple Group 3 winner Side Glance.

A longer-winded group of older males will travel 1 11/16 miles in the $400,000 American St Leger earlier in the program. European raiders Wigmore Hall, who has successfully plundered the Northern Dancer Turf at Woodbine twice, and Dandino, runner-up in the Canadian International, Jockey Club Stakes and Hardwicke Stakes since October, might hold a slight class edge over the American-based participants.

Best of the domestic contenders is Dark Cove, who has reeled off three straight victories in the Elkhorn, Louisville Handicap, and Stars and Stripes, the latter over 1 1/2 miles at Arlington. Ioya Bigtime, a two-time Grade 3 winner and American St Leger runner-up last year, has not looked as sharp this term while finishing well behind Dark Cove an the aforementioned marathon tests.

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