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Countdown to the Cup: Golly Gio, the Classic?

This may be the time for Gio Ponti's connections to start thinking about the Classic.

OK, here’s something to ponder. With a number of question marks regarding this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) hopefuls, why shouldn’t the connections of Gio Ponti  give the Classic serious consideration?

After all, many think Quality Road  is not at his best going 1 ¼ miles; Lookin At Lucky  is way behind in his training and won’t make the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) Sept. 25; the status of Rail Trip is still up in the air; Richard's Kid  looks like he does his best running on Del Mar’s Polytrack; and even Zenyatta will be making only her third start on dirt and first on a dirt surface other than Oaklawn Park. If Zenyatta is the Classic favorite, then where is Gio Ponti, who was beaten only a length by her on a track she loves?

Sure, Gio Ponti has been a turf horse his entire career, but a victory in the Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. III) and a second to Zenyatta in the Classic, both on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride, and a fast-closing fourth, beaten 1 ½ lengths, in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on Tapeta, suggests he can handle a variety of surfaces.

Of course, there is no way of knowing at this point if dirt is one of them, but he is bred more for the dirt than the grass. His sire, Tale of the Cat , was strictly a dirt horse, having won the King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. II) and placed in the grade I Whitney and Vosburgh twice. With the exception of Gio Ponti, Tale of the Cat’s best runners in this country have been dirt horses, such as Lion Heart, Tale of Ekati , My Trusty Cat, Be Gentle, and Cat Moves. Tale of the Cat is by Storm Cat, and his female family is predominantly dirt.

Gio Ponti’s broodmare sire is Alydar, who has been a major dirt influence. The only grass influence in his female family is great-grandsire Salt Marsh, and he is by Preakness winner Tom Rolfe, who sired both top-class dirt and grass horses. 

So much for pedigree. The main reason why Gio Ponti looks intriguing on the dirt is that he often runs like a dirt horse. In several of his races he has made big moves on the turn and found himself either on or close to the lead by the time they hit the head of the stretch. That is the kind of move you want to see from a dirt horse more than a grass horse. As a stone closer, he’s actually been caught from behind four times in his last seven starts, an indication that perhaps his closing punch is not as potent as it was last spring and summer. In the Tampa Bay Stakes this winter, he was unable to get by the pacesetting Karelian as the 1-5 favorite.

He now appears to be more of a grinding type of closer, as he showed in the Dubai World Cup, but he does have the quickness to recover from traffic problems. It seems to be more about timing with him now, and it’s easier to time your move right on the dirt than it is on the grass. All of this adds up to a horse whose current running style may be more suited to dirt, where he’ll likely get a cleaner trip and not have to use as many gears as he does on grass.

Although he has won at 1 3/8 miles, he appears most effective at 1 ¼ miles, and in his one 1 ½-mile race, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT), he was tested for stamina over soft going, hit the front too early, and let a 43-1 shot come back and beat him by daylight.

There is a possibility he could drop back in distance for the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), which could very well serve him better than the Turf, but he would have to take on two-time BC Mile winner Goldikova and Paco Boy, and possibly Rip Van Winkle, arguably the three best milers in Europe. And he hasn't been a mile since just getting up to win the Frank Kilroe (gr. IT) by a nose back in March, 2009. Still, this race likely would be preferable over the Turf. But it is the Classic that offers the most intrigue, because it would  be his last chance to elevate his stature to much loftier heights. There certainly is nothing wrong with winning the Mile or the Turf, but it cannot compare to winning the Classic.

After scoring four straight grade I victories last year, he has lost six of his last seven starts, and has encountered traffic problems in the last three. He had one horse sneak up the rail and beat him and had another come flying on a far outside to nail him. And he had a terrible trip in that race, having to take up sharply on the turn.

His timing and his luck have been off recently, and he just may be ready to step out of the box and give the Classic another try, even on dirt. He sure has a better chance of getting a clean trip than he would going a mile and a half on grass in a full field against the best horses from Europe. And the American grass horses have not shown in recent years that they can handle the Europeans, who have won four of the last five runnings of the Turf. Also, the Mile can turn into a crap shoot, with post position an important factor, and there is little room for error in that race, where even a minor traffic problem can prove costly.

In summation, Gio Ponti is bred like a dirt horse, runs more like a dirt horse, likes the distance of the Classic more than the Turf or the Mile, has only a length to make up on Zenyatta, and has been having bad racing luck on the grass. So, if there was ever a time to shoot for the moon, this is it. How he’d get there is another matter. He could run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), and if he doesn’t run well, he can always go back to the Turf. If he does run well against Blame  and company, then just like that he’s one of the favorites for the Classic. And what would a victory at Churchill Downs do for his value as a stallion prospect?

He could also prep on the turf and have the grass-to-dirt angle going for him in the Classic. In any event, when it comes to the mile and a half of the BC Turf, he is virtually untried at that distance, and the one time he did try he was unsuccessful.

Is he capable of winning the Turf? Definitely, if he can get a break and a nice firm turf course and doesn’t run into any Euro monsters, which is highly unlikely. If he does opt for the Classic and the track comes up sloppy, remember, grass horses move up in the slop.

And, finally, if Ramon Dominguez has any doubts about when to move him in the Classic, just stick close to Blame and do whatever he does. He knows exactly where to be and how to get to the wire.

All we’re saying is that the time may be right to try something new and bold. It’s at least something to ponder.