The Pizza Man overcomes slow pace in Stars and Stripes
Popular Illinois-bred The Pizza Man would have had an excuse if he'd failed to repeat in Saturday's $100,000 Stars and Stripes (G3) at Arlington. So the fact that the Midwest Thoroughbreds homebred successfully defended his title anyway is a feather in his cap ahead of a tougher test -- the August 15 Arlington Million (G1).
Unlike last year, when The Pizza Man stole the Stars and Stripes through pedestrian fractions, this time the 4-5 favorite raced farther back off the pace. Instead, it was the 7-1 Roman Approval who tried to orchestrate the theft by strolling uncontested through splits of :25.56, :52.53, 1:18.78 and 1:44.49 on the good course. Roman Approval still had plenty left for the stretch drive as he stayed on dourly.
But by that point, The Pizza Man had been slicing into his deficit for regular rider Florent Geroux, and he steadily gained on the longtime leader. A neck on top at the wire, the Roger Brueggemann veteran covered 1 1/2 miles on the good course in 2:34.13 and advanced his scorecard to 22-14-1-2, $900,537.
The hard luck story of the race was Calvados, who was full of run while trapped on the inside. The Argentine-bred saw daylight too late and ended up third in a performance that should set him up well for the August 15 American St Leger (G3).
Although The Pizza Man turned the Stars and Stripes/American St Leger double last summer, the six-year-old veteran is aiming higher for the Million. Judging from his career record in its entirety, he'd be likely to bump into a couple too good for him in the 1 1/4-mile showpiece. After all, he was third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the 2014 Northern Dancer Turf (G1), Canadian International (G1) and Hollywood Turf Cup (G2).
Very much in his favor, though, is the fact that he's an Arlington specialist with a local mark of 12-9-1-1 (and two course records) on this turf. Earlier in his career, The Pizza Man shaped up as a nice state-bred stakes horse, but he's obviously transcended that milieu in the past couple of years. He also kicked off 2015 with a 2 1/2-length decision in the May 30 Opening Verse at Churchill, so he's two-for-two this season.
Connections had cross-entered him to Saturday's Arlington H. (G3), which brings up a fascinating counterfactual. After the withdrawal of Triple Threat, and the losses by Middleburg and Up With the Birds to the slightly surprising Quiet Force in the Arlington ' Cap, isn't it fair to imagine that The Pizza Man would have won that? And if so, he would be heading to the Million as the winner of the identified prep.
The bay gelding is entitled to have a crack at the race that eluded his sire, champion turf horse English Channel, who was fourth in the 2006 Million. His dam, the multiple stakes-placed Lear Fan mare I Can Fan Fan, boasts intriguing inbreeding to Lt. Stevens (3x3).
Jockey Florent Geroux (The Pizza Man): "I think this horse is very good mentally. He's a horse that can be anywhere during the race and he just knows where the wire is and that's a big plus. The horse does the race and I make sure I'm nice and smooth. I'm just trying to be a good passenger and stay out of his way and he does the rest."
Jockey Julien Leparoux (Roman Approval): "We had a good race, we slowed it down a lot. He came very nice at the end and fought back. The winner is a nice horse, but my horse ran a big race."
Trainer Mike Maker (Roman Approval): "We ran a winning race, we just didn't get paid for it."
Jockey Jose Lezcano (Calvados): "I got a rough trip. With a decent trip, I could win the race. I got stopped at the 1/8 pole, we lost 3/4 length. He's a nice horse."
Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. (Xtra Luck, 4th): "We had a great trip. This was a tougher race than his last one, and he stepped it up again. He just keeps getting better."
Trainer Neil Howard (Xtra Luck): "I was very pleased. He handled everything well. We were pleased. He shows up every time and the winner is a hell of a horse. It was a tough race."
Jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. Mister Marti Gras, 5th): "With the break we had, I thought he was going to put me in a better spot. He didn't seem to like the ground much and he was climbing. We needed a meltdown with the way he was going. The Pizza Man is a serious racehorse."
Photo courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.