06/13/2013 3:45PM

Arlington Park: The Pizza Man, Coalport meet in Black Tie Affair

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The Pizza Man is 7 for 9 on turf, including a score in the $111,000 Buck's Boy Handicap at Hawthorne in October.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – The Illinois breeding program has stagnated in the last decade, and there has been a decline in the quality of runners in many Illinois-bred stakes over the past couple of years. But a pair of emerging 4-year-olds, The Pizza Man and Coalport, are adding depth to the Illinois turf-stakes division, and the nine-horse field for Saturday’s $100,000 Black Tie Affair Handicap makes it the best-looking Illinois-bred grass stakes in recent memory.

The Pizza Man, an English Channel gelding bred and owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, has won seven of his nine grass races. One of those losses came in his most recent start on May 4 at Churchill, a race in which The Pizza Man had no chance after clipping heels and almost falling at the top of the stretch.

“Watching it happen, I was concerned,” trainer Tom Amoss said. “But he cooled out well and never missed anything, and he’s been doing really well since.”

The Pizza Man, to be ridden for the first time since his debut by Florent Geroux, has logged five turf workouts since the May 4 mishap and should not lack fitness in his third 2013 outing. The Pizza Man has an explosive kick that was on display when he won the $111,000 Buck’s Boy Handicap on Hawthorne’s turf last fall. His only other grass loss came last summer at Arlington on a course rated good, and Amoss warns that a wet course might work against The Pizza Man.

Coalport, a Ken and Sarah Ramsey homebred trained by the red-hot Wayne Catalano, mainly has raced in open competition during his 11-start career and comfortably won his two turf starts against Illinois-breds. The most recent of those came at Arlington on May 24, when Coalport jogged to a 6 1/4-length score in a second-level allowance race that should have him well set for the Black Tie Affair.

The better-established Illinois-bred turfers are led by the 5-year-old Suntracer, who has regained his best form after suffering a serious eye injury two seasons ago at Fair Grounds. Suntracer, who still races in a bubble cup over his eye, finished a close fourth May 17 at Arlington while making his 2013 debut in a high-end turf allowance that, at one mile, fell short of Suntracer’s best distance. Suntracer, though, is a dead closer who benefits from a legitimate pace, something he might not find Saturday.

Mr. Mischief has a chance to control the race’s pace, as he did on the way to victory in the 2012 Black Tie Affair, but he is 8 now, and he faded to sixth after setting a moderate tempo while making his 2013 debut in the same race as Suntracer.

Tazz, who figures to show some speed from the rail, finished second by a nose in that same high-end allowance, but that only makes him less likely to improve than a horse like Suntracer, and his trainer, Christine Janks, is mired in a meet-long slump.

Lincoln Heritage: La Tia favored

While the Black Tie Affair runs deep, its sister race, the $100,000 Lincoln Heritage for fillies, should be all about La Tia.

La Tia was one of only six entrants in the Lincoln Heritage. She already has shown more raw talent than her rivals, and at 4, La Tia’s best racing might still be in front of her. After dominating Illinois-breds early last summer, she won the Grade 3 Arlington Oaks on Polytrack, and in her first start this season, she showed an equal affinity for turf, leading throughout an open, third-level allowance race to win by 4 1/2 lengths.

Trainer Armando de la Cerda, a former assistant to trainers Noel Hickey, Mike Stidham, Moises Yanez, and Brian Williamson, took over La Tia’s training from Williamson early this year, when de la Cerda went out on his own. He and owner-breeder Salvador Hernandez have designs on bigger game this summer – like the Modesty Handicap and perhaps even the Beverly D. – if La Tia does the expected and wins Saturday.

Goldway is the second choice on Arlington’s morning line, but she was left in La Tia’s wake in the allowance race last month, and With a Twist might have the best upset chance. The 5-year-old With a Twist has three wins and a second from four career starts, all on turf, and rallied sharply to win her 2013 debut, an Illinois-bred, second-level allowance, on May 26.