2015 Arlington Million Preview Day Stakes Recap

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS - Arlington International - and fans by extension - call it Million Preview Day.  It's a mid-July card with four stakes each functioning as the local prepatory races to the marquee features of the Arlington International meet - the Arlington Million Festival of Racing.  Each of the stakes was contested on the turf, rated "good" throughout the day's proceedings but softened by rain that fell during the Arlington Handicap.  The course didn't change condition at all on a warm and overcast afternoon, but certainly had some cut to it.  The four stakes each carried purses of one hundred thousand dollars and Grade Three stature.

American Derby: WORLD APPROVAL Rebounds and Pounces

Seven saw the starter in the G3 American Derby, restricted to three-year-olds with a pot of hundred thousand.  Carded as race five on the Saturday July 11 Million Preview Day program, it was the first of four consecutive stakes.  Functioning as the feeder to the G1 Secretariat, it saw bettors make WORLD APPROVAL the favorite from the opening bell, the final tote odds of 11-10.  On paper the American Derby appeared to have a dearth of front end pace, with NUN THE LESS becoming the leader in a race full of followers.

So when the latch sprang on the G3 American Derby, NUN THE LESS took the lead that no one wanted and tried to slow the cadence down, with dawdling front-end splits of :25.46 for the opening quarter and :52.46 for the opening half, with WORLD APPROVAL close in attendance, along with FIRESPIKE and CRITTENDEN.  Three-quarters of a mile clicked off in 1:18.12, and it appeared NUN THE LESS could steal this graded event. But WORLD APPROVAL and CRITTENDEN, who had been stalking throughout, were now ready to pounce.  On the outside came CRITTENDEN but at the inside came WORLD APPROVAL.  WORLD APPROVAL and CRITTENDEN would then duke it out in deep stretch for the glory in the American Derby, with CRITTENDEN rebuffed by WORLD APPROVAL. He stopped the clock for nine furlongs on "good" ground in 1:52.92, the final winning margin a neck.  WORLD APPROVAL is a three-year-old by Northern Afleet out of the With Approval mare, Win Approval.  Behind WORLD APPROVAL in the American Derby was CRITTENDEN, a neck behind.  CRITTENDEN was two lengths clear of NUN THE LESS.  KING OF NEW YORK reported home fourth.

WORLD_APPROVAL_A

WORLD APPROVAL (red cap) prevails in the G3 American Derby over CRITTENDEN (blue cap).

Jose Lezcano was aboard WORLD APPROVAL for conditioner Mark Casse, the 11-10 favorite who returned $4.20 on the win end for the punters. He quipped to Picks & Ponderings how “I didn’t see too much speed.  All the best races come from behind.  With the pace we got today, I had to let him be where he was comfortable.  He was really comfortable the whole way around.  The first time I rode him was on the dirt, kind of a sloppy track.  The dirt hit him in the face, he jumped back a little bit.  I think he’ll be a nice call in the future.”  Further, Lezcano said that "I felt very confident all the way and he galloped well all the way and when I asked him at the quarter and then I opened it up a little early."

Reached by telephone, Norman Casse of Casse Racing told Picks & Ponderings how WORLD APPROVAL "is a straight forward horse.  He wanted him forwardly placed (in the American Derby). I think the ride (from Lezcano) made the difference"

Arlington Publicity mentioned how "He got it done and we plan on being back on Aug. 15 (for the Grade I $450,000 Secretariat Stakes)"; Norman Casse mentioned it as a primary next race possibility.  Norman Casse dictated a similar plan, but left the door open for the G2 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga as a second option.

The two dollar 6-1 exacta of WORLD APPROVAL and CRITTENDEN returned $25.00.  The fifty-cent 6-1-4 trifecta of WORLD APPROVAL, CRITTENDEN, and NUN THE LESS yielded $19.55. Dime 6-1-4-5 superfectas with KING OF NEW YORK in the fourth position paid $11.42. --PM

Arlington Handicap: A Year Later, Million Plans Back on Track for QUIET FORCE

At this time last year, QUIET FORCE was primed for his breakthrough on the turf.  After running for claiming tags as low as $25,000 early last year, he found his way to Mike Maker’s barn.  It took a few starts to get him going in his new barn, but he did.  He won a grass allowance at Churchill on May 24 of last year, and followed that up with a win in the J. Kenneth Self Shelby County Boys and Girls Club Stakes at Indiana Grand on July 2.  Maker was thinking Million.

That did not happen.  A few weeks before the race, QUIET FORCE suffered a condylar fracture in training.  He went to the farm for those to heal up, but then started having foot issues.  Those took more time.  He finally healed up well enough to race earlier this year, and returned in a one-mile allowance at Parx on May 26.  He finished third behind Mr. Online, but was running well late.  It was enough to keep plans to send QUIET FORCE to Arlington alive, and that confidence paid off today.

The Arlington Handicap (GIII), which covered a mile and three sixteenths over the Arlington grass, drew a field of ten originally.  Only seven saw the starter: THE PIZZA MAN scratched to run in the Stars and Stripes instead, TRIPLE THREAT scratched due to a fever the day before the race, and R. GREAT ADVENTURE was a race-day trainer scratch.

The lion’s share of the money was on 2013 Canadian Horse of the Year UP WITH THE BIRDS throughout betting.  He opened at 2/5, though by the time the gates opened he had drifted up to even money.  MIDDLEBURG consistently stayed the public’s second choice, settling at 2/1 when the gates opened.  QUIET FORCE and DRAMEDY dueled for third betting choice throughout; DRAMEDY went off 9/2, with QUIET FORCE just behind at 5/1.

In the early stages of the race, DRAMEDY asserted himself on the lead.  Though no one pressed him closely, he still set honest early fractions for a nine and a half furlong race: the quarter in 24.02, the half in 48.39.  QUIET FORCE was near the pace early, but settled comfortably in second a couple of lengths off the pacesetter, taking the front of a strung-out main pack.  As the field approached the far turn, it closed the distance on DRAMEDY.  QUIET FORCE got first run on the outside.  MIDDLEBURG had the rail just behind, with UP WITH THE BIRDS farther out after being bumped around a bit by YANKEE DEALER and COCO MON.  With about a furlong to go, QUIET FORCE got a head in front, and DRAMEDY gave way.  MIDDLEBURG rushed on the inside, but QUIET FORCE found his next gear in time to cross the wire ¾ length in front, in a time of 1:56.50.  It was another 2 ¼ lengths back to UP WITH THE BIRDS, who nosed out DRAMEDY for the show.  COCO MON, YANKEE DEALER, and LOOKS TO SPARE completed the order of finish.

QUIET FORCE outfinishes MIDDLEBURG in the Arlington Handicap.

QUIET FORCE outfinishes MIDDLEBURG in the Arlington Handicap.

QUIET FORCE is a five-year-old horse by Dynaformer out of the Royal Academy mare Quiet Royal.  Winning stakes races here runs in the family: dam Quiet Royal was herself a stakes winner at Arlington Park.  She won the 2007 Reluctant Guest Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher and owners Wertheimer & Frere; those owners also bred QUIET FORCE  He is owned by Charles Kevin Warner, and trained by Mike Maker.  Jockey Julien Leparoux rode QUIET FORCE to victory today; he had last ridden the horse in last year's Churchill Downs Stakes (GII) on dirt.

Leparoux was pleased about how the race unfolded.  "I wanted to break good.  I was happy to see the 1 [DRAMEDY] go.  I got a target, and he finished strong."  The rain was picking up a bit by the time of the Arlington Handicap, though Leparoux still described the course as good.  The rain did not worry his trainer.  Said Maker about the course conditions, "I don't really think it matters to him.  He's handled both [dry and wet going] very well."

Maker plans to run QUIET FORCE in the Arlington Million next.  "We always had high expectations of this horse, and hopefully we'll get a chance to prove it next month."

Trainer Christophe Clement, who conditions MIDDLEBURG, made no excuses.  "He was second best.  He ran well."  MIDDLEBURG's rider James Graham concurred, "He ran good...just not quite good enough today."

A $2 win ticket on QUIET FORCE returned $12.40, the longest win mutuel of any of the stakes races on Preview Day.  The $2 exacta with MIDDLEBURG below returned $36.60.  The trifecta with UP WITH THE BIRDS in the third slot paid $22.95.  The superfecta with DRAMEDY slotted fourth came back with $11.92 for each dime base bet. -- NN

Modesty Handicap: WALK CLOSE sees Graham and Clement team up

The betting public made GAGA A, a west-coast runner and last-out stakes heroine, the 3-1 favorite in the wagering with five horses all under 5-1: WALK CLOSE, MANGO DIVA, OVERHEARD, GAGA A, and RIPOSTE. The pre-scratch field of ten for the G3 Modesty, a three-and-up filly-and-mare turf test, be whittled to nine when NOTTE d' ORO scratched to run instead in a race near Minneapolis.  The nine that saw the starter would chase SEEKING TREASURE, a 44-1 longshot that seized control of the early race tempo in the Modesty.  She grabbed a clear led and went off in reasonable splits of :24.02 and :49.22 for the opening quarter and half-mile, with HONEY LAKE and LOTS o' LEX in close attendance throughout.  Not much changed on the front end when three-quarters of a mile was posted in 1:13.71.  But as they turned for home, the 1-2-3 early pace players began to wither, and the calvary charge of closers came.  WALK CLOSE was at the rail and would go inside-outside with a three-wide a furlong from home.  GAGA A would go four-wide.  MANGO DIVA would scrape the paint.  The inside-outside rally of WALK CLOSE would prove best in the Modesty, with her gettting the victory by a half a length.  James Graham, a former mainstay on this circuit, was welcomed back to Chicago by punters who made her the 5-1 third choice, the same odds as MANGO DIVA.  WALK CLOSE is trained by Christophe Clement, and the Graham/Clement each scored their second Modesty victory.

The Modesty Handicap

WALK CLOSE (white cap) closes past MANGO DIVA (green cap) to take the G3 Modesty.

WALK CLOSE is a four-year-old Tapit filly, out of In Excess mare Spring Awakening.  She won the $100,000 G3 Modesty by half a length, stopping the clock in 1:57.08 and returning $11.60 to win.  She finished half a length in front of MANGO DIVA.  A length and three-quarters behind the top two was GAGA A, the 3-1 favorite.  Reporting home fourth was RIPOSTE, two and a quarter lengths to the rear of the wagering favorite.

Wnning rider James Graham noted that WALK CLOSE "had a beautiful trip and followed the pace around there, picked up the spread to home and did it well. The ground is a little soft but she did it the right way. She’s a really nice filly.”  It was the first time Graham had seen or ridden WALK CLOSE, but his plan for the trip was to "get all tucked in, save ground, come with a late run.”  Assistant trainer Lee Vickers mirrored Graham's sentiments, even with the ground, in Vickers's thoughts, a bit on the slow side.  Reached by telephone, trainer Christophe Clement told Picks & Ponderings that "she'd get a good flight" and was complimentary of Graham's ride.

Noone from the Clement Stable, at publish time, yielded any firm post-race plans for WALK CLOSE.

The two dollar 4-5 exacta of WALK CLOSE and MANGO DIVA yielded $85.20.  The fifty-cent 4-5-8 trifecta of WALK CLOSE, MANGO DIVA, and GAGA A netted $105.30.  Dime superfectas with RIPOSTE in the fourth position returned $65.87. --PM

Stars and Stripes Stakes: Pizza!  Pizza!  THE PIZZA MAN Repeats

At this time last year, THE PIZZA MAN had made his mark as a stakes-quality Illinois-bred, but had not yet made his mark in graded ranks.  He had finished third in the 2013 Stars and Stripes behind Dark Cove, but his only open stakes win had come in the ungraded Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap at Hawthorne later that year.

How things have changed in a year.  THE PIZZA MAN made his graded breakthrough in the 2014 Stars and Stripes, leading the field from gate to wire.  He followed that up with a win in the American St. Leger, stalking the pace and then holding off Australian shipper Dandino.  He made visits to Woodbine and Del Mar to try tougher company, and finished third in the Hollywood Turf Cup (GII) on November 27.  After those forays, THE PIZZA MAN took a long winter break.  He returned to win the Opening Verse Handicap at Churchill Downs on May 30, and stepped back into graded company today.

THE PIZZA MAN was one of eleven runners to enter the one and one half mile Stars and Stripes, though only seven others loaded into the gate with him for his title defense attempt.  Cross-entered DRAMEDY and YANKEE DEALER opted for the Arlington Handicap instead, and CASTLEDERG was a trainer scratch on race day.

The bettors found THE PIZZA MAN to be upper-crust: he stayed around 4/5 through much of the betting, and went off the 9/10 favourite.  XTRA LUCK sat second in the betting, and went off at 5/1.  Third choice among the public wavered between THREE HEARTS and ROMAN APPROVAL.  Late money sent the mare THREE HEARTS off the 5.9/1 third choice, with ROMAN APPROVAL drifting up to 7/1 by post time.

Last year's Stars and Stripes saw THE PIZZA MAN take the early lead and never look back.  This year, it was a new face trying to win the Stars and Stripes on the front.  The field took shape entering the first turn, with ROMAN APPROVAL on the lead and XTRA LUCK stalking behind and outside.  CALVADOS on the inside and AFORTABLE on the outside made up the next flight, about two lengths off the lead, with the rest farther back.  THE PIZZA MAN bided his time near the back of the main pack.  The distance between ROMAN APPROVAL and XTRA LUCK gently ebbed and flowed, but the early leader continued to set reasonable fractions for a mile and a half: the quarter in 25.56, the half in 52.53, and the mile in 1:44.49.

Entering the third turn XTRA LUCK and AFORTABLE tried to advance on ROMAN APPROVAL, but the leader had plenty more in the tank.  AFORTABLE gave way first.  Turning for home, XTRA LUCK tried to stay with ROMAN APPROVAL, but the leader edged away.  CALVADOS was trying to make a run along the rail; THE PIZZA MAN angled out for an outside run.  CALVADOS could not find room to slip between ROMAN APPROVAL and XTRA LUCK, and had to check.  THE PIZZA MAN, however, had open run on the outside.  He edged ahead, confronted ROMAN APPROVAL, and hit the wire first by a neck.  CALVADOS rerouted, angled out behind XTRA LUCK, and kicked past him on the outside to finish third, beaten only a length.  XTRA LUCK checked in fourth, ¾ length behind CALVADOS.  MISTER MARTI GRAS, FOR GREATER GLORY, THREE HEARTS, and AFORTABLE completed the order of finish.

THE PIZZA MAN edges past ROMAN APPROVAL to win his second Stars and Stripes Stakes.

THE PIZZA MAN edges past ROMAN APPROVAL to win his second Stars and Stripes Stakes.

THE PIZZA MAN is a six-year-old gelding by English Channel out of the Lear Fan mare I Can Fan Fan.  A Midwest Thoroughbreds homebred, THE PIZZA MAN is trained by Roger Brueggemann.  He was ridden by Florent Geroux, who also piloted him to his Stars and Stripes triumph last year.  THE PIZZA MAN now holds a 14-1-2 record in 22 lifetime starts, with 9 of his wins having come over the Arlington turf.  The 2015 Stars and Stripes is the ninth stakes win of his career, and his second graded stakes win.  He became the sixth horse to win multiple renewals of the Stars and Stripes -- and the second Illinois-bred to do it, after Free Fighter in 2009 and 2011.

Rider Florent Geroux praised his mount. "I think this horse is very good mentally.  He's a horse that can be anywhere during the race...I'm just trying to be a good passenger and stay out of his way and he does the rest."  With respect to the margin of victory, Geroux noted, "he loves to win, but he isn't the type to win by fifteen.  He knows where the wire is."

Trainer Roger Brueggemann stated that the decision to run THE PIZZA MAN in the Stars and Stripes as opposed to the Arlington Handicap was not made until yesterday.  "I think he can run anywhere from a mile up," Brueggemann stated.  "I'm kind of sorry I didn't run him in the Firecracker at Churchill.  I think he could have won that."  In response to the trip, he stated, "Last year he just fell out of the gate and happened to get out there.  He doesn’t like to be on the front end.  When he makes the lead, he wants to start rating.    It’s a little scary.  He’s better off the pace, for sure."  The pace raised brief concern with his conditioner.  "I was worried about how far back he was and how slow they were going.  I thought, well, maybe he’s going to get trapped."

"We’ll try and find a Win And You’re in, see if he’s good enough to run in the Breeders’ Cup," stated Brueggemann about THE PIZZA MAN's plans.  "Actually, right now, we’re kind of pointing toward the Million.  It’s what we have in mind right now.  If he comes out of this good, and trains good up until that race, that’s the plan."

The team behind ROMAN APPROVAL took pride in their charge's runner-up performance.  "We had a good race, we slowed it down a lot," stated rider Julien Leparoux.  "He came very nice at the end and fought back. The winner is a nice horse, but my horse ran a big race."  Trainer Mike Maker quipped, "We ran a winning race, we just didn't get paid for it."

THE PIZZA MAN, who stopped the clock in 2:34.13 paid his backers $3.80 to win.  The $2 exacta with ROMAN APPROVAL below paid $22.40.  A $0.50 trifecta with CALVADOS slotted in third returned $31.55 for each base bet.  The dime superfecta with XTRA LUCK placed fourth paid out $31.86.  The all-stakes late Pick 4 with WORLD APPROVAL, QUIET FORCE, WALK CLOSE, and THE PIZZA MAN returned $152.50 for $0.50.  -- NN

Stakes recap authors are denoted above by initials, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.  All photography courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.

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