Fair Grounds Barn Notes: Sunday, December 13

The Pizza Man cruised home a winner of Grade II $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup on Thanksgiving Thursday at Del Mar - Photo Credit: Benoit Photo
Benoit Photo


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 winnerGrand 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.”


Daniel Dougherty’s Ride On Curlin continues to impress in the mornings since his fifth-place finish in the $60,000 Thanksgiving Handicap on Nov. 26. The Classic-placed son of Curlin has taken an old-school route in the mornings, working a sharp seven furlongs on Dec. 5 in 1:26.40 and then working a mile one week later on Dec. 12 in 1:41.80 for trainer Billy Gowan – two distances rarely breezed in the modern era of training.

“We were trying to play catch-up a little bit and I thought he needed more works,” Gowan explained. “To me, to run in a stakes, you have to be fit and I wanted to make sure he had plenty of air in him. A big stable you can work in company but I don’t have that luxury. Once he gets race-fit you don’t have to drill on him as hard, obviously.

“He came out of that work real good,” Gowan continued. “He looks fitter and he’s starting to act like he did when he was three. Honestly his legs haven’t looked this good since that season and I have to give a lot of credit to the track here at Fair Grounds. It’s really helped him and he hasn’t missed a day of training. Last year he missed training because he couldn’t go to the (Oaklawn) racetrack after coming back from winning that sprint and before his route race.”

Ride On Curlin has drawn post three in the $60,000 Tenacious Stakes on Dec. 19 at Fair Grounds, part of a six-stakes Santa Super Saturday at the New Orleans oval. The 4-year-old colt is a three-time winner and earner of $781,487 from 17 starts, but is still looking for his first stakes victory, despite a record that includes runner-up finishes in last year’s Grade I $1,500,000 Preakness Stakes and Grade I $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby.

“I thought he ran huge in the Thanksgiving Handicap,” Gowan explained. “He was finishing down the lane and I was impressed. He was beaten five lengths and was 12 or 13 behind earlier and those were good horses. I wanted to see him close down the lane and wasn’t expecting a win.

“I think the horse deserves a stakes win,” he continued. “As much much as he’s put out and accomplished, he ought to be a stakes winner. I believe if he keeps marching and training this way, he will.”


Two promising, high-profile juveniles highlight Friday’s feature at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. The fourth race, a mile and 70-yard first-level allowance for 2-year-olds, has a post time of 6:45 p.m. as part of Fair Grounds’ second edition of Starlight Racing this season. The competitive event has drawn a field that includes Dede McGehee’s homebred Dolphus – a half-brother to 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra – as well as Dallas Stewart trainee Tom’s Ready, a stakes-placed colt owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and wife Gayle who was thought of so highly that he was entered in a Grade I as a maiden and subsequently pre-entered in the Breeders’ Cup off just a maiden victory.

Dolphus, a son of Lookin at Lucky, hails from the barn of Joe Sharp and exits a victory on debut going six furlongs on Nov. 21 at Fair Grounds. Said victory, though it did not produce huge speed figures, was encouraging for his connections. Bred to relish two turns, the chestnut colt appeared to only engage the race in the late stage, yet still proved victorious by three-quarters of a length. Brian Hernandez, Jr., who was aboard that day, has the return mount when the pair breaks from post five in a the eight-horse field.

Tom’s Ready exits an eighth-place finish in the Grade II $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs over a sloppy and sealed track. The son of More Than Ready was bumped soundly at the beginning and came up empty late, but has shown considerable talent in races prior. Two back, in the one-mile $83,800 Street Sense Stakes over a fast Churchill Downs main track, he was game in defeat when second to Benson-owned Mo Tom, while gaining on him with every stride. Robby Albarado picks up the mount from the disadvantageous outside post eight.

Others of intrigue in the first two-turn open juvenile race for winners this season are Mark Breen’s minor stakes winner Pinnacle Peak (Florent Geroux, post two), from the barn of leading trainer Mike Stidham, and Rigney Racing’s Moon Gate Warrior, a Phil Bauer-trained son of champion Bernardini and multiple stakes winner J Z Warrior who won last out going a mile at Churchill Downs.


Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s homebred multiple graded stakes-winning gelding Departing worked a half-mile in a sharp 49.20 for trainer Al Stall, Jr. The multi-surface specialist was last seen finishing second at 7-5 odds in the Listed $250,000 Delta Mile at Delta Downs on Nov. 21.

Dede McGehee’s high-profile juvenile Dolphus, a half-brother to Rachel Alexandra, worked a half-mile in 50.80 for trainer Joe Sharp in preparation for his second race and first attempt against fellow winners on Friday evening.

Promising juvenile D. Shifflett, owned by Haynes Stables et al., worked a half-mile in 51.20 for trainer Mike Stidham in preparation for his stakes debut in next Saturday’s $50,000 Sugar Bowl. The gelded son of Valid Expectations has not raced since a second-place effort to subsequent stakes winner Richie the Bull at Keeneland on Oct. 8.

Stakes-winning Steve Margolis trainee Agent Di Nozzo returned to the work tab for the first time since a fifth-place finish in the Listed $250,000 Delta Mile on Nov. 21, going a half-mile in 49.60 for owners Robert and Lawana Low.

Unraced juvenile filly Lady Digger once again burned up the track, working her second bullet in her last three works for trainer Merrill Scherer. The Louisiana-bred daughter of the swift Yankee Gentleman and graded stakes-winning mare Desert Digger shot out a bullet from the gate on Sunday morning, going a half-mile in 48.60 and besting 125 other workers at the distance.

Source: Fair Grounds

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