Little Mike and Dullahan may have flopped in Dubai on World Cup night, but the two horses are out to regain their titles in million-dollar races in America on consecutive weekends, starting with Little Mike's defence of his Arlington Million crown on Friday night.
Little Mike has not won in three runs since taking the Breeders' Cup Turf in November, but trainer Dale Romans is convinced that his horse is back to the sort of form that saw him prevail against 10 others 12 months ago.
Little Mike picked up an ankle injury when running 11th to Sajjhaa in the Dubai Duty Free and was fourth to Blue Kitten on his comeback race in the Grade 1 United Nations Stakes last month.
No horse has won the Arlington Million in consecutive years, although John Henry, the tough dual Eclipse Award winner, secured two victories. His first was in a nail-biting photo-finish in the inaugural race in 1981, and he followed up in 1984.
"Physically there's no excuse going into this race," Romans said. "He's doing as good as he possibly can be and is back to his old self. He is training like his old self and I expect him to bounce back and run huge."
Ramon Dominguez was on board when Little Mike won last year, and has been ridden since by Keiren Fallon and Gary Stevens, but was partnered by Joel Rosario at Monmouth last time.
Rosario has had a stellar year with wins in the Dubai World Cup, Kentucky Derby and at Royal Ascot, and Romans was looking forward to having the Dominican in the saddle to ride Little Mike from the front.
"He's the hottest rider in the country and he hasn't done anything wrong. It seems like he's winning stakes every weekend, so we're happy to have him," the trainer said.
"I think it is our premier turf race. I remember as a kid watching John Henry and The Bart hit the wire in the first million-dollar race in America.
"It's a young race as far as the world is concerned, but it's already had a lot of great moments and for me, it was always the second big race I wanted to win outside the Kentucky Derby."
Little Mike faces 12 rivals at the Chicago course with Romans also running outsider Finnegans Wake. Godolphin's Hunter's Light will be ridden by Ryan Moore, while Side Glance, who was fourth in the Dubai World Cup in March, will have Jamie Spencer on board. Other prominent mounts include Mike de Kock's The Apache and Jeremy Noseda's Grandeur, who is well-fancied but is yet to register a win at the highest level.
The home defence is led by Indy Point, the mount of Stevens, who has put together a string of Grade 1 victories in Argentina and proved he could cut it at a lower level in America when winning at Del Mar a month ago.
If Little Mike fails in his bid, Dullahan is in line to take his chance in the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar next Saturday.
"He's doing super, also. He put in some great work last weekend. He's flying out on Monday," Romans said.
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