By Michael Adolphson for WoodbineEntertainment.com
TORONTO, November 12 - It is difficult to find a horse who was not a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup superstar who has garnered the superlatives and racing public admiration that The Pizza Man did during his career.
Perhaps it was his will to win and eye-catching turn-of-foot. Maybe it was his massive size and the endearing pizza-shaped star that earned him his moniker. It could have simply been his longevity in a game so often tainted by short-lived careers and shooting stars burned out too quickly.
Whatever it may or may have been, the son of English Channel was a turf monster who ate up his competition on multiple occasions and over a series of seasons, while satiating the appetites of so many racing fans throughout the country. Puns aside, the massive bay did take a piece of nearly ever pie he attempted and grew a fan base that started in his home state of Illinois, expanded from California to Canada and earned him the roars of many crowds with his ferocious late kick.
“He meant a lot to our family. He still does, as he’s alive and well, but as a racehorse he did so much,” said Richard Papiese, whose Midwest Thoroughbreds bred and owned the 17-hand gelding. “The things he accomplished for an operation like ours — it was unbelievable. We won’t have another like him. Don’t get me wrong, I believe we will have great horses come along and maybe we do already, but he was truly special. He’s going to enjoy his life on the (Ocala) farm now.”
Trained through the majority of his career by softly spoken veteran Roger Brueggemann, and also during a stint by fellow Midwest training team member Tom Amoss, the 17-time winner from 36 starts earned USD $2,158,941 (about CAD $2,693,387) and 12 stakes victories — five graded and two Grade Is. The majority of those big victories with Florent Geroux, while also being led to victory by jockeys Flavien Prat, Mike Smith, Sheldon Russell, James Graham, Francisco Torres and Leandro Goncalves.
Things did not start out as rosy, though. Making his debut in a six-furlong dirt maiden special weight on New Year’s Eve 2011, The Pizza Man could not have looked more disenfranchised, checking in a dismal eighth, beaten nearly 11 lengths at Hawthorne Race Course. Being by a turf champion out of a quality turf-winning daughter of grass sire Lear Fan (I Can Fan Fan), a switch of surface and up in trip was obviously in order — and boy was it what he needed.
The Pizza Man would go on to win seven of eight, with his only loss a tough trip in the Grade III American Derby at Arlington International Racecourse. After a trio of tough trips and still learning his best running style, he went on another tear, winning eight of 11 — all in stakes company and topped by rousing and popular victories in the now-graded Listed $400,000 American St. Leger over world-class stayer Dandino and a neck victory over subsequent Eclipse Award-winning champion Big Blue Kitten. He capped his 6-year-old season with a smashing victory in the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar, displaying a ferocious acceleration that dismantled a full field of 14. His season earned him an Eclipse Award finalist honor and solidified him as one of the top turf runners of his generation.
“We’re awfully proud of him,” Brueggemann said at the conclusion of that season. “He is a barn favorite and we love him. He always tries. You have to ride him just right, but when you do, I don’t know a horse who can beat him with that kick he has. He is probably the best horse I’ve ever trained.”
Such was high praise coming from a trainer who trained Eclipse and Breeders’ Cup champion sprinter and fellow Midwest homebred Work All Week a season prior.
Much like his career in compendium, his relationship with Woodbine and Canadian fans did not start as admirably, but ended with adulation. His first trip to Canada was a disaster. Shipping poorly after his American St. Leger triumph, he refused to eat and checked in a disheartening fourth in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer as the 6-5 favorite. Papiese and Brueggemann refused to be deterred and tried him again in the Grade I Pattison Canadian International a month later, where he ran an improved fourth behind top-class English horse Hillstar. A season later, he turned into the grass gargantuan that earned him a spot among the best.
“Things didn’t go that well with him during that trip, but in the end, he learned to love Woodbine and the fans loved him I think,” Papiese said. “He did love it up there and he proved it in the end. It was great to get his final win in Canada. The long stretch was great for him and his big stride. And he loved the turns. We loved it there as fans and owners because it’s all first-class how they treat you. Once he settled in, he liked it there and we are pretty sure we will go back there with more stakes horses whenever we can. It’s one of my favorite and my wife Karen’s favorite places to go. They treated us so well every time. I’d like to go on record and thank everyone at Woodbine all they do. It’s second-to-none and it ended with him getting the job done.”
In what was ultimately his final career tally, the then-7-year-old warrior won a bloodshed battle in the 2016 Norther Dancer over Grade I winners World Approval and Wake Forest. One on each side turning for home, The Pizza Man was surrounded and at one point may have actually been third, but he refused to be denied
. His will, like so many times before, prevailed. He, after all, had already faced the world’s best — including back-to-back Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winners Found and Golden Horn — and he was not about to back down here. He collared World Approval and surged past, then held off Chad Brown-trained Wake Forest by a neck under Prat. The grandstand, like it had in the Arlington Million and Hollywood Turf Cup, erupted.
It was a new side of The Pizza Man, who proved that he could still surprise people. He earned, believe it or not, even more love from the racing world. He did not just surge past with a wicked final split — he overpowered the powerful and earned himself a spot among the greats to grace the grandiose grass course of Woodbine and will forever be remembered.
Steeped in tradition, Woodbine’s world-famous turf races have been captured by some of the greats of the sport including recent Woodbine Mile champs Tepin and Wise Dan; the Hall of Fame mare All Along who captured the International in a standout campaign; and the incomparable Secretariat, who concluded his historic career with a runaway score in the 1973 edition of the International. Join us as we profile Titans of the Turf, highlighting those who have triumphed on the Woodbine green.
September 4th, 2017. Titans Of The Turf: Tepin
September 11, 2017 - Titans Of The Turf: Wise Dan
October 12, 2017 - Titans Of The Turf: All Along