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Breeders' Cup


The Pizza Man marches toward Breeders’ Cup

By Larry Hamel, Horse racing writer

The Pizza Man
The Pizza Man and Florent Geroux after the Arlington Million - Photo courtesy Four Footed Fotos
After confidence-inspiring performances over the weekend by The Pizza Man and Work All Week, owner Richard Papiese indicated that all systems were go for his prized Illinois-breds to start in the Breeders’ Cup.

The Pizza Man, winner of the Arlington Million, nearly pulled off a last-to-first rally in the Grade I $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile on Saturday, falling a head short of catching Grand Arch at the wire after a gaining-ground-with-every-stride surge down the stretch over a yielding surface. Work All Week, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion and an Eclipse Award winner in 2014, was a solid third in the slop from the outside post on Friday in the Grade III $250,000 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix over six furlongs.

Both stakes at Keeneland were part of the “win and you’re in” Breeders’ Cup Challenge series. Neither of the Midwest Thoroughbreds stalwarts won automatic starting spots, but each recorded two-thumbs-up efforts and loom as legitimate threats in their respective big dances on Oct. 31, also at the storied Lexington, Ky., racetrack.

Papiese, a South Side native, conceded on Sunday that using a mile race as a prep for the 1 1/2-mile Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, “might be considered unconventional, but all along we felt that The Pizza Man fit at that distance. He ran a huge race and he got exactly what he needed out of it.”

Besides getting a race over the track on which the Breeders’ Cup will be contested, The Pizza Man added a cool $200,000 to his bankroll with a second-place finish that had Twitter popping with accolades from racing pundits. Gushed TV analyst Caton Bredar: “Huge race for The Pizza Man. 1 jump after wire he’s on top. Rare to show ability from 1 mile to 1 1/4-miles.” Analyst Jill Byrne raved: “How awesome is The Pizza Man! A throwback to some former greats that can excel at many distances under many conditions.”

It appears as if Illinois racing’s favorite son will be a “Cinderella story” media darling leading into the Breeders’ Cup weekend at the end of the month. The 6-year-old gelded son of English Channel earned an automatic entry into the Turf when he cashed in the Million on Aug. 15. There doesn’t appear to be a distance on the grass that doesn’t suit The Pizza Man, who won the 1 3/4-mile American St. Leger marathon at Arlington in 2014.

“For all the folks who may have thought he couldn't run a mile: Surprise,” Papiese said after the Shadwell. “It's a question of two turns and he could probably run a two-turn race at six furlongs on a small track and run big. He got more out of this race than you could ever imagine [to prepare for] the Breeders' Cup. That's why we ran here instead of any other race. It's about bigger and better things down the line."

The runner-up finish at Keeneland might have done more to raise The Pizza Man’s stock than did winning the Million on his home track.

“We know that there will be a tough field for the Turf and that great grass horses will be coming here from Europe,” Papiese said. “But it’s clear our horse is at the top of his game and we are confident he will be a factor.”

Work All Week fell short of gaining an automatic spot in the $1.5 million Twinspires Breeders’ Cup Sprint with his third-place finish in the Ogden Phoenix, 1 3/4 lengths behind 3-year-old phenom Runhappy. But Papiese more than appreciated the plucky effort. Forwardly placed throughout, the 6-year-old City Zip gelding had some footing issues with a sloppy track not to his liking, but he maintained his speed well after being chased four-wide.

“He ran a heck of a race in those conditions from the outside post,” Papiese said. “It had been pouring all day, but we were comfortable that the track was safe for him to run on. Work All Week was right there until he spun his wheels when [jockey Florent Geroux] went to slingshot him wide out of the turn. He actually went sideways three or four pathways. It wasn’t a very good trip, but he still recovered in the stretch and was only beaten for second by two or three inches.”

The kicker is that Papiese got an A-OK day-after report from trainer Roger Brueggemann.

“Both of our horses came out of their races great,” Papiese said. “Roger told me that they were acting as if they hadn’t even run. We really like where we are with both of them and are confident they will be ready for the Breeders’ Cup.”

Editor's note: Unfortunate news came down Thursday regarding two-time Illinois Horse of the Year and 2014 Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Work All Week. The 6-year-old gelding has been retired from racing by Midwest Thoroughbreds after a routine scan detected a stress fracture in the right knee, an injury that likely happened during his third-place finish in the Grade III Phoenix stakes last weekend at Keeneland. “You try to keep the highs and lows in perspective,” owner Richard Papiese told the media. “After all the tears, the good thing is that we still have the horse ... and he doesn’t go out in an ambulance."

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