Though Gio Ponti is a disappointing 0-for-3 this season, he is not too far away from being the horse that collected dual Eclipse Awards in 2009. The 5-year-old horse just needs a little luck and the right trip, which he will seek when defending his title in the $600,000 Man o’ War Stakes (gr. IT) July 10 at Belmont.
His 1 3/4-length victory in last year’s Man o’ War was the third in a series of four consecutive grade I turf wins by Gio Ponti, a homebred of Castleton Lyons trained by Christophe Clement. Though he finished runner-up in the final two races of his 4-year-old campaign, the bay collected champion older horse and champion turf male Eclipse Awards to cap a sensational campaign.
But things have not gone as smoothly for Gio Ponti in 2010. The year began with a nose defeat in the Feb. 20 Tampa Bay Stakes and it was followed by a fourth-place finish in the March 27 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), a race over a synthetic surface in which he was beaten only 1 1/4 lengths against some the world’s best.
An earner of more than $3.7 million in his career, Gio Ponti was dealt his third setback of the season in the June 5 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) at Belmont when he endured a troubled trip and was beaten a half-length by stablemate Winchester despite closing gamely between horses on the inside.
Though winless in his last five, Gio Ponti has been runner-up in four of those starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) last fall.
“I’m very happy and the horse is doing very well,” Clement said. “I had a question mark on his fitness going into the Manhattan last time, which I don’t have anymore. He had a small break after the Breeders’ Cup because we brought him back to full work earlier in the year to make the race at Tampa as a prep race for Dubai. He’s lacked a bit of racing luck in some of his races, and also it’s a question of competition. When you get to that level, you run against the best.”
The 1-2 morning-line favorite will carry 120 pounds in this year’s Man o’ War and break from post 8 with regular rider Ramon Dominguez in the irons.
Marc Keller’s Grand Couturier will race in the Man o’ War for the fourth time. The 7-year-old son of Grand Lodge was third in 2007, sixth in 2008, and fifth last year. Grand Couturier has won just once in nine starts since October 2008, that coming in the Bowling Green Handicap (gr. IIT) last fall on Belmont’s yielding turf. A softer course would likley benefit Grand Couturier in the Man o’ War. Scattered thunderstorms are in the forecast for Elmont, N.Y., on Saturday.
Trained by Bobby Ribaudo, Grand Couturier is a three-time grade I winner, including back-to-back victories in the 2007-08 Sword Dancer Invitational. Rajiv Maragh will ride the earner of more than $1.4 million from 26 starts. He was a troubled seventh in the Manhattan last out.
“We had some trouble in the race, but it wasn’t as drastic as people have made it out to be. It just showed that he was running, which is nice,” said Ribaudo. “Other than Gio Ponti, it’s a wide open race.”
Another runner that would probably benefit from some rain is Elliot Mavorah’s Interpatation, who collected his grade I victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational last fall on the soft Belmont going. The 43-1 shocker, in which he outlasted Gio Ponti to win by 1 3/4 lengths, is the lone win in the last 21 starts for the 8-year-old Langfuhr gelding. Most recently, he was ninth in the Manhattan. Jose Lezcano has the call for trainer Robert Barbara.
Others contenders include Bearpath, winner of the Pan American (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream in March and runner-up last out in the Louisville Handicap (gr. IIIT); Strike a Deal, the Dixie Stakes (gr. IIT) winner at Pimlico two starts back; and Expansion, the third-place finisher of the Manhattan and a grade II winner at Aqueduct last year.
“He was wide the whole way in the Manhattan and still came with a good run,” said trainer Chad Brown of Gary and Mary West's Expansion, the 5-1 second choice. “I monitored him closely after the race to make sure it didn’t knock him out, it was a career race for him, but the way he’s acting, I think he’s right back to where he was right before the Manhattan.
$600,000 Man o' War Stakes (gr. I, Race 9, 5:17 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 3/8 Miles (Turf) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Interpatation (KY), J Lezcano, 120, R Barbara
2. Bearpath (KY), F Lenclud, 116, I R Wilkes
3. Strike a Deal (KY), J R Velazquez, 118, A E Goldberg
4. Expansion (KY), J Castellano, 118, C C Brown
5. Mission Approved (NY), J L Espinoza, 116, N Chatterpaul
6. Grand Couturier (GB), R Maragh, 118, R Ribaudo
7. Midnite Silver (MD), C H Velasquez, 116, C J Domino
8. Gio Ponti (KY), R A Dominguez, 120, C Clement