You wouldn’t know it if you lived in the Chicagoland area, but Saturday will be the one day all year that all eyes in the horse racing world will be focused on Arlington Park for the 35th running of the Grade I Arlington Million.
This year’s edition is shaping up to be memorable, even though the defending winner, Mondialiste, will not be coming stateside to defend his crown. Memorable not only because of the competitive field that is shaping up, but also because it may be the last time Illinois’ own The Pizza Man takes to the Arlington turf.
Though he is certainly not in his best form after finishing a disappointing second in last month’s Grade III Stars and Stripe, his effort that afternoon may have been better than it looked. With Florent Geroux back on board, The Pizza Man had to close into a slow pace for the second race in a row and took the lead briefly down the stretch before being passed by hard-charging Keystoneforvictory, under Julien Leparoux.
The 1 ½-mile race may have been just a furlong too long and cutting back to 1 ¼ miles, in this third race off a layoff, at his favorite track, with arguably the best turf jockey in the country (Irad Ortiz Jr.) climbing aboard, there are plenty of reasons for bettors to back The Pizza Man at the windows. The jockey change to Ortiz may prove especially significant because The Pizza Man’s running style fits Ortiz like a glove. Ortiz thrives coming off the pace, especially on the turf, and that’s what The Pizza Man does best.
The 2015 winner of the Million will likely go off much lower than his 12-1 morning line due to being such a fan favorite in Illinois, but pulling off a victory on Saturday will cement his legacy as one of the greatest ever to compete at Arlington Park.
Getting back to the winner’s circle will be no easy task, however, as there will be a salty group waiting for him in the starting gate. The top European challenger will be Aidan O’Brien’s Deauville, the 7-2 favorite on the morning line, who finished third in last year’s Million as a three-year-old. He’s coming off two Group 1 third-place finishes and a second in last month’s Group 2 Meld Stakes and has shown an affinity for the Arlington turf.
The American contenders will be headlined by Divisidero and Beach Patrol, both 5-1 on the morning line. Divisidero, like The Pizza Man, needs a pace to run into, but he is in fine form despite his sixth-place finish at Belmont Park in the Grade I Manhattan in June and Julien Leparoux is one of the best turf riders in the country.
Beach Patrol will be forwardly placed under Joel Rosario. He hasn’t visited a winner’s circle since Million Day last year when he won the Grade I Secretariat Stakes here at Arlington, but he’s been knocking on the door.
Those looking for a bomb might settle on Ghost Hunter, 30-1 on the morning line, who returns to Arlington after winning the Grade III Arlington Handicap last month for trainer Jamie Ness. The seven-year old son of Ghostzapper benefitted from a perfect rail-skimming trip in that affair and will be up against it on Saturday against a much classier crowd.
The horse who impressed me more in the Arlington Handicap was the Illinois-bred Oak Brook, a five-year old gelding for trainer Brian Williamson. He contested a decent pace throughout the 1 3/16-mile affair, didn’t save much ground and had to avoid a tiring horse drifting into his path down the stretch. It was too much to overcome that day, but it was his second impressive race in a row on the Arlington turf. This five-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway is coming into his own, and while he’s never faced horses the likes of these, this 30-1 longshot cannot be overlooked in your exotic wagers and may even be worth a small win bet.