With success can come a sharper perspective regarding one's achievements. So when trainer Dale Romans is questioned about what has thus far been an ordinary season for his barn in 2013 in contrast to the Eclipse Award-winning tear it was on last year, he responds with a genuine appreciation for the level of success he and his charges achieved.
"We would love to have last year every year," the Louisville native said. "But like I've said in several interviews, I would have taken last year (statistically) as my career when I started."
Multiple Grade I winner Little Mike shares a commonality with the man who cares for him as he too has yet to regain the form that made him the poster child of his trainer's championship march in 2012. Heading into the very weekend that defined what both were capable of a year ago, Romans believes Saturday's Grade I Arlington Million can again serve as the game-changer for the Spanish Steps gelding, and the rest of his shedrow, going forward.
Installed as the 5-1 third choice in the morning line when a field of 13 was drawn for the headline event of Arlington Park's International Festival of Racing, Priscilla Vaccarezza's Little Mike is aiming to join John Henry as the only horses to win two editions of the Million, and the first to do so in consecutive years.
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Emerging from this weekend with a piece of history would be quite the boost in what has been a season of regrouping in the Romans empire. While a level of downturn must be braced for following a career-best year that saw the Romans barn produce 20 graded stakes wins en route to securing his first Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer, nobody would have predicted Romans would have just a single graded stakes win — Silver Max in the Grade III Oceanport Stakes on July 28 — nearly eight months into the year.
Some of the drop-off is due to losing horses like multiple Grade I winner Shackleford to retirement. The setbacks began early for Romans, however, when a large portion of his stable was hit with illness at the start of the year.
"We had some kind of bacterial infection that came through the barn and just had a bunch of them get sick," said Romans, whose barn has earned $2,126,713 through Wednesday after earning $11,834,249 in all of 2012. "It just kind of put me on lockdown for a while and had to get them healthy. But they're all well now ... and I think we're going to have a good end to the year.
"You're not going to get that influx every year of those massive group of high-priced young horses," he continued. "And so you just regroup and rebuild and hope you can get back to where you were."
Captivated after watching John Henry memorably battle The Bart in the inaugural running of the Arlington Million in 1981, Romans counted the 11/4-mile turf test behind only the Kentucky Derby as the win he most wanted on his résumé.
Little Mike's gate-to-wire exposé last year satisfied that bucket-list item — and silenced those who questioned his distance ability — setting the bay gelding up for a season-ending victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf, his third Grade I win in seven starts last year.
While he and stablemate Dullahan avoided the early-season illness when both were sent to Dubai to prep for and compete on the World Cup card, that was the only positive outcome of the venture. The 6-year-old never got hold of the Meydan surface, running eighth in his prep race and 11th in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free.
"I think it took us a little longer to get him there after the trip to Dubai, but I think he is sitting on go for the rest of the season," Romans said. "It made for a slow start to the year because ... you kind of throw all your chips in when you go to Dubai: You either hit big or you come home and you have to recover and be ready for the last half of the year."
Though Little Mike was fourth in his stateside 2013 debut, the Grade I United Nations Handicap on July 6, Romans was encouraged by his turning back pressure from Skyring midway down the backstretch and only getting beat 31/4 lengths.
A deep international contingent will be chasing him Saturday, including 7-2 morning-line favorite Grandeur and Group I winner Hunter's Light. Having shouldered a sizable portion of the barn's success last year, Romans is hoping Little Mike still has it in him to kick-start a stable-wide turnaround.
"Physically there's no excuse going into this race. He's doing as good as he could possibly do," Romans said. "He's just done whatever we asked him to do and I expect him to bounce back and run huge Saturday."
When: Saturday, 6:44 p.m. EDT
Where: Arlington (Ill.) Park
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
For: 3-year-olds and up
Distance: 11/4 miles (turf)
Arlington Million field
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 Real Solution Garcia 10-1
2 Finnegans Wake Albarado 30-1
3 Hunter's Light Moore 8-1
4 Nates Mineshaft Baird 30-1
5 Temeraine Castro 30-1
6 Side Glance Spencer 12-1
7 Indy Point Stevens 9-2
8 Mull of Killough O'Brien 12-1
9Guest of HonourHarley 15-1
10 The Apache Soumillon 15-1
11 Little Mike Rosario 5-1
12 Rahystrada Napravnik 20-1
13 Grandeur Buick 7-2