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Backstretch Buzz

Arlington Million Weekend Preview

Ryan Moore and Frankie Dettori are perhaps the two most famous jockeys in Europe, if not the world. They are riding Saturday in the Arlington Million. So are the New York-based Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, both rising stars. Julien Leparoux is in the race, as are Joel Rosario, Florent Geroux, and Corey Lanerie.

And there, on Oak Brook, is a name familiar in Chicago but not so much elsewhere – Santo Sanjur. Sanjur, a regular at Arlington and Hawthorne since 2014, gets his first mount in a Grade 1 race.

“Yeah, I’m super excited about it,” said Sanjur, a 22-year-old native of Panama. “It’s a good experience for me riding with jockeys like that. I hope to be there one day.”

Sanjur has ridden in 10 graded stakes the last three calendar years but until Oak Brook finished second last month in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap he had never so much as been third or better. Oak Brook has the rail and pace, and Sanjur expects to be prominent from the start.

“I really like my horse. He’s doing good right now. I got the first post position and some speed. I’ll try to let him break good and get a good position and see what we got at the finish,” Sanjur said.

Brian Williamson trains Oak Brook for the Virginia Tarra Trust. Williamson said close to two weeks ago the decision had been made to stick with the little-known jock in the big race.

“You start changing like that, it can be a bad karma thing, you know?” Williamson said.

Jamie Ness, trainer of Arlington Handicap winner Ghost Hunter, apparently feels the same way, as he sticks with the relatively obscure jockey Edwin Gonzalez in the Million. Trainer Ignacio Correas is taking the same path on his star Argentine mare Dona Bruja; Declan Cannon has been working the horse since spring, rode her in a pair of Grade 3 wins, and will be aboard in the Grade 1 Beverly D.

Sanjur, of course, would love even a high placing in a million-dollar Grade 1, but merely participating is something to cherish. “I’m really happy already just to get the chance,” he said.

Pizza Party at Arlington?

Many people believe that at age 8, The Pizza Man’s best days are behind him. Rich Papiese is not among those people.

“I respect everybody but I wouldn’t trade with anybody in the race,” Papiese said Friday.

Papiese, operating under the Midwest Thoroughbreds banner, bred and owns The Pizza Man with his wife, Karen. The Pizza Man, one of  two Illinois-breds in the Million along with Oak Brook, won the Million on 2015 and finished a close sixth last year. He started his 8-year-old season with a fourth-place finish in the Illinois-restricted Black Tie Affair Handicap and second last out going 1 ½ miles in the Grade 3 Stars and Stripes. That does not look like a pattern for success leading into the Grade 1, 1 ¼-mile Million, but Papiese feels The Pizza Man, who will be ridden for the first time by Irad Ortiz, is just hitting his peak right now.

“He’s there. He’s coming,” said Papiese. “You’re going to see an 8-year-old horse with 5-year-old legs tomorrow. Irad will give him a good ride. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Graham, take 2

When a relatively obscure trainer named Eddie Graham showed up from Maryland at Arlington in August 2014 with a horse named Hardest Core, not a lot of folks took a tremendous amount of interest. Then Hardest Core, an 11/1 shot, went out and won the 32nd Arlington Million.

Graham still has a perfect Arlington record – one starter, one winner – but he is putting perfection on the line Saturday when he runs a horse named Postulation in the Grade 3, $250,000 American St. Leger.

Postulation, purchased privately in Ireland last year by Runnymede Farm, comes into the St. Leger after winning the Cape Henlopen Stakes over 1 ½ miles at Delaware. That’s the same race Hardest Core won on his way to Million glory.  That was a career-best race from 5-year-old Postulation, who began showing signs of being a graded-stakes class horse earlier this year.

“I give all my horses the winter off, and he needed some time, and he just really came back good this year,” Graham said. “We’re just starting to figure him out.”

What Graham figures out was that Postulation wanted real distance: The Cape Henlopen was just jus second start over 1 ½ miles, and on Saturday, Postulation gets to run nearly 1 ¾ miles in the St. Leger.

“After the last race at Delaware, the jock came back told me he could have gone around there another time,” said Graham.

As for Hardest Core, he has battled problems since his Million win and never gotten back to the form he showed in that race. But after a long break following a tendon injury last year, Hardest Core is working again, and if all goes well could race again early this autumn.

And if all goes well Saturday, Eddie Graham will run his Arlington record to two wins from two runners.