I’m glad The Pizza Man is being honoured at Arlington on Woodbine Mile day. It fits. With what turned out to be his final career win, on Mile day last year, the Pizza Man gave me a hug when I needed it most.
On one of Woodbine’s flagship days of racing, a pair of familiar Illinois-bred faces were part of the festivities. The Pizza Man came to make his second try in the Northern Dancer Turf (G1), after having finished fifth two years before. Earlier in the day, Bruce D Memorial Stakes winner Yo Carm would try to carry his form into graded company, facing Amis Gizmo in the Ontario Derby (G3). Tepin dominated the conversations leading into Woodbine Mile day, but I could never resist an opportunity to remind the folks at Woodbine that two of my hometown heroes would be running, too,
The fourth race of the day, the first stakes, was the Ontario Derby. I snapped a few furtive cell phone camera shots in the paddock, hoping for at least one cute shot of Yo Carm’s flashy face. But, as any good Hawthorne (or cold-weather Woodbine) denizen knows, that’s the wrong equipment for capturing horses in an indoor paddock. It was what I had, and I settled for a couple of dim and blurry shots of him walking around.
A misty, grey sky hung over the course as the field got on their way. I watched from the apron, clear across the sweeping, green highway of Woodbine’s grass course. I looked right, tracking the field around the clubhouse turn. Heavily favoured Amis Gizmo took point; Yo Carm was where he so often was, biding his time closer to the rear than to the front.
I tracked the field, in living colour as much as I could, using the infield screen when I couldn’t quite see. Irad Ortiz had worked the flashy bay to the rail; he still sat in the next-to-last flight, but could at least save ground. Outwardly I looked calm; with a press badge clipped to my shirt, I felt a need to act professional. Meanwhile my grey matter vibrated in my skull, impatient for Ortiz to ask Yo Carm to take it to Amis Gizmo. He was getting away!
Into the turn, Yo Carm was improving. Then, at the five-sixteenths, a step looked wrong. Then, he took a a few more wobbly steps just seconds after his stride had been so sure. Then, no steps.
Though it was a big race day, it was still a rainy one, and most of the tailored suits and flowered hats had stayed inside. I hustled across the sprawling concrete to get as close as I could, just to see. Inside, I knew my effort would come to naught. I had craned my neck at enough horses pulling up that I knew what I saw would shed no light on anything. I’d see outriders galloping, a horse standing, a horse van clattering. Whether I got a bit better angle had no bearing on whether Yo Carm would race again, much less whether he would live.
The van impeded my line of sight. I stood, staring at that box on wheels in the distance, trying to divine what I could from the motion of the vets, the flap of the screen, the time the ambulance waited. I tried to catch a glimpse at Yo Carm, some indication that he was okay. I couldn’t.
Practicality finally eroded my morbid need to know, and I went upstairs. I learned what I hoped I never would. For everyone, a day of celebration went dark for a moment, but for those who knew him, the clouds didn’t part.
In a shadowy little corner of the hallway, I was glad Nicole was there. She was up from Chicago as well. We talked about Yo Carm, the blaze down his face, his maiden days, his triumph in the Bruce D, the end. We could be numb and understand why.
Eventually, we had to take our clouds with us, back to our work for the day. But, walking back to my seat to regroup for the rest of the day, I allowed myself a thought…please, The Pizza Man. Do it for Illinois. Win, if you can. If nothing else, just get across the wire safe, get back to Chicago, like Yo Carm never would…but, if…
The tenth race, the Northern Dancer, was upon us. I made it back to the paddock, took a few smudged pictures of another local I had travelled five hundred miles and flashed my passport to see again, and forced a smile as I gave my race analysis on Periscope. Though I wanted nothing more than to see The Pizza Man win, my phone battery was running on fumes and my handicapping convinced me that an underneath rung was as good as my local hero would do, since big grey World Approval would have things so easily on the lead. My cooler head prevailed, and led me to the sixth floor for electricity and a quiet gaze through the windows.
That gaze turned into two and a half minutes of wondrous bafflement. A closer in so many of his recent starts, The Pizza Man kindly stalked the pace under his new rider, Flavien Prat. He spent the far turn hung three wide, but he was in touch behind something I knew I would see, World Approval easily galloping in the front of the line.
A mile into the race, World Approval had gotten along with setting glacial fractions. He couldn’t give up a lead after going that slowly, right? Yet, into the final half-mile, The Pizza Man ranged up to his outside flank. World Approval led a length, three quarters of a length, half a length…
They passed the quarter pole. World Approval, who saved all that ground, slipped clear again. Wake Forest bore down on The Pizza Man’s outside, and that got the Illinois-bred going once again. He would not let Wake Forest pass. That effort caused him to gain once more on the lumbering grey who had put him away. In the final sixteenth he stuck his head in front, leaving no time for anyone else to make a rally at him.
I froze. 26.97, 53.99, 1:44.78, a handful of numbers so delightful for a front-end horse. Yet, The Pizza Man had run him down. He had caught World Approval despite carrying not only Flavien Prat but our heavy hearts on his back.
I needed pictures, video, something. Here I was, six floors up, and I needed to be down on the turf. I grabbed my sputtering phone, my charger, my bag, and bolted to the elevator. I repurposed the tablet in my bag as an overengineered phone battery, hoping it would be enough to let me capture The Pizza Man. I made it down to the rail, bolted across the turf, bolted across the Tapeta.
The Pizza Man was finishing his win photo. I had to do something. I fired up my phone, hit record, and ranted breathlessly about The Pizza Man and Flavien Prat’s ride and how he made such a crushing day better. I caught him in the distance, draped in his blanket, walking toward the receding edge of the clouds.
I walked back across the cradling Tapeta, across the lush turf, back to the unforgiving concrete apron. More people milled about than had been there a few hours before, as the weather had mostly cleared and the Grade 1 races had gotten underway. I ran into Nicole, and our exhausted smiles told the story.
Thank you, The Pizza Man, for being there, for fighting on, and for bringing a bit of joy to that day a year ago when I most needed it.