01/06/2016 1:38PM

2015 Eclipse Awards: The Pizza Man

Benoit and Associates
It was supposed to be a one-time deal.

Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. of Richard and Karen Papiese first popped onto the national racing radar as a rapidly expanding claiming operation, a massive outfit that turned horses over frenetically and at its peak won 542 races in 2012 alone. Then came Work All Week, an Illinois-bred Midwest had bred itself, who ripped through 2014 winning every dirt race he contested, including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He was named champion sprinter that year, an amazing accomplishment for a volume operation that only had dabbled in stakes racing.

Work All Week didn’t return the same horse in 2015 – but Midwest is back at the Eclipse Awards anyway, and with another Illinois-bred homebred. The Pizza Man was a good horse in 2014 and an even better won in 2015, when he made six starts, won four of them, finished second once, and rallied for a solid fifth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. It was a strong campaign, and The Pizza Man is a deserving Eclipse Award finalist. He traded decisions in two meetings with fellow finalist Big Blue Kitten, and has a more diverse distance portfolio than the other two finalists, with a good win at 12 furlongs and near miss in a one-mile Grade 1.

The Pizza Man was a 6-year-old during his 2015 season, but the gelding, by English Channel and out of the Lear Fan mare I Can Fan Fan, really only blossomed at 5. Tall, skinny, and late to mature, The Pizza Man didn’t win his first graded race until midway through 2014, but he has won plenty since while displaying remarkable versatility.

The Pizza Man, trained, like Work All Week, by Roger Brueggemann, began his season in May winning the listed Opening Verse Stakes at Churchill Downs over 1 1/16 miles. He returned the next month to capture the Grade 3 Stars and Stripes at Arlington racing 1 ½ miles, and then, instead of going for a repeat win in the marathon-distance American St. Leger, Midwest and Brueggeman shot for the moon and hit it, winning the Grade 1 Arlington Million. Under Florent Geroux, The Pizza Man rallied from ninth in Chicago’s most important race and scored by a neck over Eclipse Award finalist Big Blue Kitten.

But what next? The Pizza Man’s connections aimed the gelding toward the Turf, but with Brueggemann based in Kentucky, there was no clear path to the race. In order to stay near home and get a race over the course, The Pizza Man raced in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile; the start was purely a stepping-stone to the Turf, but The Pizza Man nearly won anyway, coming from seventh at the stretch call to finish second by a head.

The Pizza Man failed to bring one of his very best performances to the Turf, reaching contention at the top of the stretch before finishing somewhat one-paced, but he was back on his game in Southern California, coming home sharply under new jockey Mike Smith to end his season with a decisive win in the Grade 2 Hollywood Turf Cup.

The Pizza Man lacks the visual sizzle of a horse like fellow Eclipse finalist Golden Horn; you would hardly pick him out of a crowd. Geroux said after the Stars and Stripes he can be a funny horse to ride, that at times he feels totally off the bridle, like he might not do any running at all. But The Pizza Man always comes with his run, and when he wins, the headlines write themselves: The name might seem cheesy, but the horse always delivers.