The Nitza’s Pizza story just gets better and better. It culminates Friday night at Northlands Park when a man’s good fortune and generosity, a little girl’s spirit and a special race horse’s courage are celebrated.
Peter Giannakopoulos, the owner of Nitza’s Pizza, will present a cheque for $3,000 -- $1,000 for each of the five-year-old mare’s wins during the track’s summer thoroughbred meet – to the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Miracle Network in a ceremony between the fourth and fifth races on the card.
The approximate time is 7:15.
For those unfamiliar with the feel-good story of the year at Northlands, Giannakopoulos purchased the horse last November from Bill Ehmcke of Phoenix when friend and jockey Jake Barton found her while surfacing the internet.
She had the same name as his local restaurant chain, so named for his late niece, Nitza, who died at the age of 12 of a brain tumor.
Ehmcke will also be present for this wondrous event.
The fourth race on Friday’s card will be the Nitza’s Pizza Feature. The fifth will be the Miracle Kids Feature. Nitza’s Pizza has run four times at Northlands, winning three races and will be entered for the final time this year, fittingly, in Race No. 5. Another win means another $1,000.
“I want to give something back,” says Giannakopoulos. “This has been a dream come true for me to be able to remember my beautiful little niece like this.”
Some of these special children and their families will be in attendance and will meet Nitza’s Pizza in the barn area following her race.
By SCOTT HASKINS - Northlands Columnist
Robertino Diodoro calls training race horses “a disease, a sickness.” The hours are long and the paycheques are always a little short, but every once in a while something happens that does the heart good.
It’s about the thrill of victory,” he says.
In this case, this very special case, it’s about the chill of loss.
It’s a great story, but it doesn’t start out that way.
It starts with a family tragedy seven years ago, with a love affair between a man and his very special niece, Peter (The Greek) Giannakopoulos and 12-year-old Nitza.
She has cancer and he has a lump in his throat. “Beautiful, kind and soft,” Peter says in describing Nitza. “She loved animals.” The doctors gave her three months. “She made us happy as long as she could.”
Peter and Nitza had a special bond before she got sick. It only intensified.
“She loved coming to my pizza place in St. Albert and I would spoil her. We must have broken all kinds of records for the amount of candy I bought. It was about $120 a day. Nitza would take it to the hospital and give it to the other kids.”
This couldn’t go on. “You have to start earning money,” he kidded her. And she kidded right back. “Change the name to Nitza Pizza and give me royalties,” she said.
Nitza lived 18 months after the diagnosis. “It was devastating when we lost her,” Peter says. “This is for her.”
This is a borderline miracle, a true blessing ...
In November, friend and jockey Jake Barton was cruising the net when he came across the name of a horse in Phoenix. He couldn’t believe his eyes, and Peter couldn’t believe his ears.
The five-year-old mare’s name was Nitza Pizza.
“I had to have her.” After a series of phone calls, Peter reached the horse’s owner, William Ehmcke. “He said that his wife was named Nitza and he was a pizza-eating fool.”
Then Peter related the story about his restaurant and his niece.
He offered to give him the horse for free but, Peter says, “That’s not my style. We agreed to kind of split it. She would finish the season down there and then come to Edmonton. I would take good care of her.”
After a victory in her next race in Phoenix, Nitza Pizza was claimed. Claim it back, Peter said. The cost was $4,000, “but I would have spent $20,000.”
In three Alberta starts, Nitza Pizza has finished first, second and fourth. That’s a bonus that hardly even matters. This horse will be well taken care of.
She will have the long life little Nitza, her namesake, never enjoyed.
She runs in claiming races, but don’t even bother. “I’m just going to claim her back again,” Peter says. “I hope people have the kindness in their hearts to leave her alone.”
Peter Giannakopoulos loves race horses, but one has a special place in his heart. And so does one man, William.
“We talk on the phone every day,” Peter says. “I’m going down there for a visit later this month, then he’s going to come up here. I love the guy and I don’t even know what he looks like.”
I don’t know if this makes you believe in fate, but it should make you believe in love.