Aside from American Pharoah, it is hard to find a horse in 2015 who has developed as intriguing a fan base as Midwest Thoroughbreds' well-traveled win machine The Pizza Man. A homebred 16-time victor from 26 starts, the 6-year-old son of 2007 Eclipse Champion Turf Horse English Channel could emulate his sire eight years later if all goes well in the 2015 Eclipse Award voting. In the meantime, he has taken up residence on the backstretch of Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots to prepare for a 2016 campaign under the tutelage of trainer Roger Brueggemann.
“He's happy and doing well right now,” said Midwest principal Richard Papiese. “We're just blessed to have a horse like him and we're not done with him yet! He's going to run in California in January and once more at either the Fair Grounds or Santa Anita before hopefully going to Dubai.”
In 2015, the 11-time stakes winner shipped from his Churchill Downs base for five of six starts, including victories across the country at various distances and over top competition – crowned by a rousing win in the Grade I $1,000,000 Arlington Million where he out-gutted Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey's Chad Brown-trained Big Blue Kitten in a stretch-long drive, defeating an international field that included eight horses representing six nations who had won or placed in Grade/Group I races.
“He can run anywhere from a mile to forever,” Papiese said. “He is the kind of horse that is so classy, he could win a stakes at six and a half furlongs if it was around two turns. He has the strongest kick of any turf horse racing – it's just amazing. I know Big Blue Kitten has a really good kick and I really respect that horse, but (The Pizza Man) has shown what he's all about when he's given the opportunity – like when he was side-by-side with him in the Million and beat him. He's a fearless warrior and he goes inside, outside and between horses to win. There's nothing timid about him. He's a real competitor.”
A markedly versatile stakes winner from a flat mile to the marathon distance of 1 11/16-miles (when taking last year's Listed $400,000 American St. Leger), the big bay gelding with the pizza slice-shaped star kicked off his campaign at his home base when trouncing multiple graded stakes winners Departing and Frac Daddy under jockey Florent Geroux in the $65,000 Opening Verse Stakes in June going 1 1/16 miles. Stepped up considerably in trip to the 1½ miles next out in the Grade III $100,000 Stars and Stripes, he won by a measured neck over fitter competition.
Following his aforementioned victory when cutting back to the 1¼ miles of the Million, he cut back again – this time to take on the nation's best milers in the Grade I $1,000,000 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in October. In a heartbreaker, he fell a head short and one stride late at the wire in the 12-horse field after passing all but winner Grand Arch in an eye-opening final three-sixteenths over rain-soaked ground. A loss as impressive as any victory in his career, The Pizza Man's effort was substantiated when Grand Arch finished a game third next out in the Grade I $2,000,000 Breeders' Cup Mile.
Four weeks later, on racing's biggest day in the Grade I $3,000,000 Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland, The Pizza Man was more forwardly placed than usual and ran an inexplicably flat fifth, still only losing by 4¼ lengths. After scoping poorly the next morning and requiring antibiotics that would not clear his system in time, a trip to the Japan Cup was scrapped and a contingency plan to race in the Grade II $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar was established.
Sitting well back in the field under new rider Mike Smith, The Pizza Man rallied six-wide in the 1½-miles Del Mar event with effortless strides, overcoming a glacial pace in the process and ultimately toying with his rivals with an in-hand, visually impressive victory. In the process, the accomplished charge won in his third region and at his third different distance in 2015.
“He does everything you ask him to do and the only losses he had were by a head going a mile where a stride later he was the winner, and in the Breeders' Cup where he wasn't given the opportunity to run his race,” Papiese said. “If he had crossed the wire a stride sooner in the Shadwell, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. Then he beat them convincingly while geared down in California. That race was a Grade I for a long time and I don't know what happened to where it was downgraded, but it's still a big race and he shipped across the country three weeks after the Breeders' Cup.
Smith, who has ridden no fewer than 13 Eclipse Award winners – including four Horse of the Year recipients – is equally in awe of The Pizza Man and his season.
“He's accomplished so much this year and I think there's an extremely strong argument that he's the best in the country,” Smith said. “It was an honor to get the opportunity to ride him. Any chance you get to ride a horse of his caliber, it's a blessing.
“His stride and his kick are outstanding,” Smith continued. “Some horses – even good horses – they climb a little when you ask them after having run a mile and a quarter, but when he kicks it feels like you're running downhill. I had other trainers and owners from around the country tell me how pretty it was to watch this horse level off and extend his stride; to have that burst. I feel like he could run against some of the best on the international level. If he goes into those races the way he did coming out of this race, he has a big shot. With that kind of talent, he can go anywhere.”
According to Papiese, the plan is to run The Pizza Man in the Grade II $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes on Jan. 2 at Santa Anita before a possible run in either the Grade III $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap on Feb. 20 or Grade II $200,000 San Marcos on Feb. 6 back in Arcadia. Ultimately, the early season goal is the Group I $6,000,000 Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan in the United Arab Emirates on Mar. 26, while the late season goals are the Breeders' Cup Turf and Japan Cup.
“If he was in a different barn, I would still tell you this horse is the best turf horse in America,” Papiese said. “I know what we have and he's a champion who finished the year showing how good he is. When a Hall of Fame rider like Mike Smith tells you that he's a believer and will go anywhere in the world to ride this horse, that's a pretty strong statement.
“This is for the horse and not for me,” Papiese concluded. “He deserves it. The Pizza Man isn't the best because he's ours, he's the best because he is.”
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