Owner, breeder, and restaurateur Carlo Vaccarezza, a resident of Parkland and the proprietor of Damiano restaurant in Boca Raton and Frank & Dino’s in Deerfield Beach, was still savoring the Arlington Million triumph by his homebred Little Mike five days after the son of Spanish Steps, who made his career debut at Calder in 2009, led every step of the way to capture the internationally prestigious 10-furlong turf race.
“Can you believe this?” Vaccarezza said of Little Mike’s momentous win. “I’m just a backyard kind of guy and we took a Florida-bred horse that was out of an Illinois-bred mare and we took on the Europeans in one of the biggest races in the world and we beat them. What a story.”
As Vaccarezza stated, provincial pride was felt in two states following Little Mike’s win, with Florida in the distance rooting home one of its own, and the host state of Illinois cheering for the offspring of the mare Hay Jude, who once competed regularly at the Chicago area tracks and found her way to Vaccarezza through an old and influential friend in Illinois racing.
“A few years ago I was in Chicago and one of my best friends, Pat Greco, had about 30 or 40 mares he was trying to disperse,” Vaccarezza said. “I don’t know what it was, but there was something about her (Hay Jude) that caught my eye. So I took her and I sent her to Crupi’s (Newcastle Farm) in Ocala and we bred her; first to Tiger Ridge, and that was Little Nick, and then later to Spanish Steps, which is where we got Little Mike.”
Those two horses would have their fates forever entwined as on July 11, 2009, both horses made their way to the Calder track on an afternoon that would prove the high-mark for Little Nick and the leaping-off point for Little Mike. For in that day’s fourth race, Little Nick would win the biggest race of his career, the $150,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint Championship, and just two races later Little Mike was unveiled to a second-place finish in a five-furlong dirt sprint.
“And together, those two horses have made over $2.2 million during their career,” Vaccarezza said. “Things like that don’t happen all the time in this business, not for guys like me.”
Despite an encouraging debut, Little Mike struggled a bit through his early stages as a racehorse, putting forth three additional uninspiring performances on dirt before changing the trajectory of his career in August 2010 when he altered course from six furlong main-track sprints to two-turn races on the turf.With that switch, the gelding immediately won three straight, all while running on the lead, and the die was cast for a remarkable run that would see Little Mike win 11 of 15 grass starts, taking down several big-money races including four stakes at Gulfstream Park, the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on this year’s Kentucky Derby day, and most recently the Million.
“The thing is, if they let me on the lead, I think he can run all day,” Vaccarezza said of Little Mike’s ability to win races from 7 ½ furlongs to 1 ¼ miles. “And those horses that run against him have a problem; if you try to go with him on the lead, you can’t stay with him and you’re going to lose. And if you let him go like they did Saturday, you’re going to lose.
“That’s exactly what Kieren Fallon (rider of Arlington Million runner-up Asfare) told me after the race,” Vaccarezza continued. “He told me that we had confused him. He knew he could never run with us, but when we got away, he knew he was never going to catch us.
“And off the turn, he opened up six lengths on a world-class field. That’s unheard of. And he came home in 22 (seconds). It was just so impressive what he did.”
Also notable is what Little Mike did for his trainer Dale Romans, a good friend of Vaccarezza’s who, in addition to starting the gelding in the Million, saddled three of the eight horses that contested that day’s Grade 1 Secretariat, including race-favorite Silver Max, but did not win.
“The night before the race, we went out to dinner with my son Nick, and Dale told us how important winning the Million was to him,” Vaccarezza said. “He told us how, when he was 14 or 15, he was with his father at the first Million when John Henry beat The Bart, and how other than the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, the Million was the one race he wanted to win more than any other.
“I talk to Dale almost 10 times every day. He isn’t just my trainer; he’s one of my best friends. So to win this race for him, on a day when he was supposed to win the Secretariat and didn’t, I was really happy for that.”
Vaccarezza also reserved some joy for his wife Priscilla, a co-owner of Little Mike and a Chicago native that will soon have the opportunity to regale past acquaintances with stories of Little Mike’s exploits and his recent role as local hero.
“My wife was born in Chicago and she’s going back next weekend for her 30-year school reunion,” Vaccarezza said. “And now she’s got some story to tell.”
As for Little Mike, an early November trip to Santa Anita for either the Breeders’ Cup Mile or Breeders’ Cup Turf seems a certainty, with one prep race tentatively scheduled between last week’s Million victory and an attempt at achieving California glory.
“We’ll look at three races for him next,” Vaccarezza said. “Dale and I will decide between the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland (October 6), the Woodbine Mile (September 16), and the Joe Hirsch (Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park September 29). And then the plan is the Breeders’ Cup.”
In honor of Little Mike’s triumphant run in the Arlington Million, and to recognize his south Florida roots, Calder will stage a special winner’s circle presentation following the eighth race on Saturday’s Juvenile Showcase card.