The Pizza Man overcomes deep ground to serve up hometown win in Arlington Million
There was joy in Mudville -- I mean, Arlington Heights -- when hometown hero The Pizza Man prevailed in Saturday's $1 million Arlington Million (G1), becoming the first Illinois-bred to capture his home state's greatest race and locking up a spot in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1).
This marked the second straight year that Midwest Thoroughbreds' homebred thrilled the crowd on International Festival of Racing Day. In 2014, he dethroned defending champion Dandino in the American St Leger. And as he did last year, The Pizza Man warmed up by winning the 1 1/2-mile Stars and Stripes (G3) on Million Preview Day.
Connections had a choice to make about which Festival race to pursue this year: a title defense in the American St Leger, or go for the big one in the Million? Although The Pizza Man was cross-entered, owner Richard Papiese consistently indicated a preference for the Million, and aiming high certainly paid off.
The Pizza Man is a classic example of a "horse for the course," since he brought a remarkable 12-9-1-1 local mark into this test. But that didn't mean it was all plain sailng. Regular rider Florent Geroux said afterward that The Pizza Man was "struggling" on the rain-softened ground.
“I’m always confident when I ride him -- he loves to win and knows where the wire is," Geroux said. "But I had no horse the whole way, it looked like he was struggling over the very soft track. But when I put him outside he started to hold up and grabbed the bit again and I was thinking, 'oh boy he’s going for a big one here!'"
Even so, The Pizza Man had his proficiency around Arlington to fall back on in these adverse conditions. That was still a real asset while a few of his main rivals were floundering.
As expected, Shining Copper went forward in his pacesetting job on behalf of fellow Ramsey colorbearer Big Blue Kitten. Winging it through fractions of :46.75, 1:10.84 and 1:36.48, he was taking no prisoners on this yielding course. Those who chased him early -- Maverick Wave, Bookrunner and Legendary -- all folded badly. Yet Shining Copper kept on motoring well until the stretch.
By that point, Up With the Birds made a menacing move on the rail, only to flatten out. Big Blue Kitten worked his way into contention on the outside.
But to the roar of the Arlington faithful, The Pizza Man was moving best of all. Improving his position on the far turn, the Roger Brueggeman-trained veteran was on the premises to deliver his challenge. He wore down the valiant Shining Copper, and held on from Big Blue Kitten by a neck. Shining Copper turned in a monstrous effort to finish third. This, coupled with his similarly resilent fourth in the United Nations (G1) last out, should earn him a chance at a good race of his own, and not as a pacemaker.
Notching his first Grade 1 win, The Pizza Man also became a millionaire with $1,458,537 in the bank. The 5-1 shot negotiated the soggy 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.20.
The son of 2007 turf champ English Channel thus earned the Million victory that eluded his sire, who was fourth to The Tin Man here in 2006. The pressing question now is, can The Pizza Man emulate English Channel by adding the Breeders' Cup Turf to his resume?
If the Breeders' Cup were back at Arlington, I'd be wary of understimating him again. But he didn't look as formidable on the road last fall, when finishing fifth in Woodbine's Northern Dancer Turf (G1), fourth in the Canadian International (G1) and third in the Hollywood Turf Cup (G2) at Del Mar.
Fans can try to rebut that argument by pointing to his triumph in the May 30 Opening Verse at Churchill Downs prior to his Stars and Stripes homecoming. Is that an indication of his being better than ever at six, and therefore a different proposition this fall? I wouldn't be so sure -- at least until we see him in a Grade 1 at another venue, like Belmont's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) for example.
In the meantime, I'd point to the course conditions as a major factor in several flops here (see quotes below). And runner-up Big Blue Kitten is really a 1 1/2-mile horse, so I'd give him extra credit for missing bya neck at a distance short of his best. Also, the international contingent in the Breeders' Cup will be much stronger than the ones encountered here.
Although I'd rather not spoil the post-Million pizza party, I'm not quite on the bandwagon yet for the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Richard Papiese (principal of winning owner Midwest Thoroughbreds): “I can’t describe how happy I am. That was more emotional than the Breeders’ Cup for us because of what it means. I know it’s tough times right now in Illinois, so I hope we can help turn the tide.
Papiese's quip on going to the Breeders' Cup: “We will have to read the paper and see if we belong.”
Florent Geroux (jockey, The Pizza Man): "He is a local horse and even going to the track there was a lot of people cheering for us and I’d like to thank them.”
Joe Bravo (jockey, Big Blue Kitten, second): “I think I was on the best horse today but he didn’t like the ground. When ‘Kitten kicks, he’s a runner.”
Chris Emigh (jockey, Shining Copper, third): “I thought I had a chance turning for home. He tried to win.”
Drayden Van Dyke (jockey, Up With the Birds, fourth): "We had an awesome trip, maybe the wet turf course didn't go in our favor. It was splashing good out there. Overall we saved all the ground, weren’t too far behind about mid pack. Had a clear trip, just got outrun."
Eduardo Pedroza (jockey, Wake Forest, sixth): “He gave me a good run in the corner but when I asked him he didn’t have it.”
Jamie Spencer (jockey, Belgian Bill, seventh): “Soft ground was no good for him, he ran a good race, I think we could have placed if the ground was fast.”
Gerald Mosse (jockey, Bookrunner, ninth ): "I got a beautiful run, I think it's a bit too soft for him. It sprayed a lot late and I'm not sure he handled it too much. With that ground I feel the distance is too long. I think the ground is quite deep for him."
Robby Albarado (jockey, Quiet Force, 10th): "I had a good trip, I don't think he got over the ground it was a little soft going. He slipped around there.”
Jose Lezcano (jockey, Triple Threat, 11th): "It's very soft, he was fighting with the ground and he didn't get there."
Sheldon Russell (jockey, Legendary, 12th): " I had him in a good spot going the first turn, I just found that the whole way round he was struggling, I don't know if he has ever run on ground as heavy as that. Usually he is an aggressive horse, he wasn't on the bit the whole time. But although the pace was fast early on I never felt comfortable."
William Buick (jockey, Maverick Wave, 13th): “He is obviously a lot better than that. I was where I wanted to be but he dropped back so fast. That wasn’t him.”
Photo courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.