Earlier in the week, Arlington International Racecourse chairman Richard Duchossois said he would love to see Illinois racing turn in the right direction by having the first state-bred win the Arlington Million.
Oh, how The Pizza Man delivered on Duchossois' wish.
With a terrific turn of foot in the stretch drive, The Pizza Man charged between horses and held off Big Blue Kitten by a neck to produce the heaviest dose of local flavor in 33 runnings of the Million.
The Pizza Man owners Richard and Karen Papiese grew up in Chicago and many of their first dates included trips to the racetrack.
Trainer Roger Brueggemann lives in southern Illinois and even the agent of winning French-born jockey Florent Geroux is a Des Plaines native, Doug Bredar, who proposed to his wife before the 1989 Million at Arlington.
"I hope this helps turn things around because I have so many friends who worry about what's going to happen to them in the industry," Brueggemann said.
Brueggeman wasn't worried about how The Pizza Man would fare against some of the top turf horses in the world.
"He has been training well," he said. "He deserved this chance and he came through."
The Pizza Man came through with his tenth win on the Arlington turf following his most recent triumph in Arlington Heights on July 11 in the $100,000 Stars and Stripes.
While Saturday's purse was ten times higher, it was not the biggest purse the Papieses have won. Work All Week won the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Sprint last year at Santa Anita.
"This is more emotional than the Breeders' Cup," said Papiese, who played basketball, baseball and football at Washington High School and is now a manufacturer of store fixtures in University Park. "We know it's tough times now for Illinois racing, but we hope this helps turn the tide."
"This is more exciting than the Breeders' Cup," said Karen, who graduated from Visitation High School on the south side of Chicago. "The Breeders' Cup is exciting, but to be here with our all our family and friends, this is something else."
Arlington fans, who saw the Pizza Man go off at odds of 5-1 and return $13.60, were hardly unfamiliar with the 6-year old gelding.
The Pizza Man won the American St. Leger on International Festival Day last summer.
"Roger (Brueggemann) was a little upset we didn't run in the Million last year," said Richard Papiese. "But it was a great story to see Hardest Core win, so I was happy we ran in the St. Leger. And I told Roger we'd go in the Million this year."
And The Pizza Man was on 'go' when Geroux asked.
"I'm always confident when I ride him," said Geroux, who was also aboard Work All Week at the Breeders' Cup. "He loves to win and know where the wire is."
But Geroux said his horse was struggling over the yielding course, which had been hit with a downpour of rain about an hour before post time.
"I had no horse the whole way," Geroux said. "But when I put him outside he started to hold up and grabbed the bit again and I was thinking, 'Oh boy, he's going for the big one here.'"
Sure enough, The Pizza Man came from ninth after a quarter mile and kept surging to the wire to edge Big Blue Kitten, who made a big late run under Joe Bravo.
"I think I was on the best horse today," Bravo said. "But he didn't like the ground. When Kitten kicks, he's a runner."
Shining Copper, who led from the opening steps to mid-stretch, held on for third and lost by less than length.
"I thought I had a chance turning for home," said jockey Chris Emigh. "He tried to win."
But this win belonged to the hometown hero.
"He is a local horse," Geroux said. "And even going to the track there were a lot of people cheering for us and I'd like to thank them for that."