Headline writers have enjoyed the easy puns with Illinois-bred The Pizza Man throughout his career, penning "The Pizza Man Delivers" and "The Pizza Man Gets the Dough" as he galloped to victory in minor races.
But the 6-year-old English Channel gelding gave them the biggest opportunity of all to write his name when he turned back multiple grade I winner Big Blue Kitten in the $1 million Arlington Million (gr. IT) Aug. 15 at Arlington International Racecourse, becoming the first from the Prairie State to win his home track's marquee race. Watch Video
A homebred running for Midwest Thoroughbreds, The Pizza Man was sent off at 5-1 in a field of 13 runners, his odds no doubt shortened by local spirit rather than based upon his July 11 victory over the course in the Stars and Stripes Stakes (gr. IIIT).
Midpack early on behind pacesetter Shining Copper, he gave jockey Florent Geroux a few anxious moments on the turf course that earlier in the day had been softened by rain.
"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!' 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."
The Pizza Man made a strong closing move and took over to get 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.20 on yielding turf for trainer Roger Brueggemann. Big Blue Kitten rallied five wide willingly but missed by a neck, while Shining Copper held three-quarters of a length back in third.
"I thought I had a chance turning for home," said jockey Chris Emigh, who nursed Shining Copper along through a mile in 1:36.48 after setting early fractions of :21.79, :46.75 and going a robust three-quarters in 1:10.84. "He tried to win."
Worth $13.80, $6.80, and $4.60, The Pizza Man improved his record to 15-1-2 from 23 starts for earnings of $1,458,537. Big Blue Kitten brought $4 and $3.20 as the 3-1 second choice under regular rider Joe Bravo, and Shining Copper paid $11.60 at 27-1.
"I think I was on the best horse today, but he didn't like the ground," Bravo said. " When 'Kitten' kicks, he's a runner."
Completing the order of finish were Up With the Birds, Elleval, Wake Forest, Belgian Bill, favored Slumber , Bookrunner, Quiet Force, Triple Threat, Legendary, and well-regarded Maverick Wave, who was vanned off. All ran under equal weights of 126 pounds.
The Pizza Man, out of the Lear Fan mare I Can Fan Fan, improved his record to 15-1-1 from 23 starts, with earnings of $1,458,537.
The Arlington Million is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" event, granting The Pizza Man an automatic entry to the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Keeneland. Last year, Midwest Thoroughbreds claimed their first Breeders' Cup victory with eventual champion male sprinter Work All Week, who was ridden by Geroux to victory in the Xpressbet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I).
"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," said Richard Papiese, principal of Midwest Thoroughbreds.
As far as earning a Win & You're In berth into the Breeders' Cup, Papiese quipped, "We will have to read the paper and see if we belong."