Reigning turf and older male champion Gio Ponti closed into a slow pace but was still able to get up by a measured neck to score his first win of the season and defend his title in the $600,000 Man o’ War Stakes (gr. IT) (VIDEO) July 10 at Belmont Park.
The dual champion of 2009 had been winless in four starts this season entering the 1 3/8-mile Man o’ War, a race he won a year ago during a streak of four-consecutive grade I victories. The 5-year-old son of Tale of the Cat also broke a five-race losing streak in his much-needed triumph. Ramon Dominguez guided the Castleton Lyons homebred for trainer Christophe Clement.
Things did not look promising early on for Gio Ponti, as he trailed the field of eight while racing into a pedestrian pace. Mission Approved, a 53-1 longshot, raced uncontested on the lead with Jose Espinoza aboard, taking the field through splits of :26.13, :52.27, 1:18.07, and 1:42.30. Gio Ponti was dead last after a mile, but only about six lengths off the lead. Strike a Deal stalked the pace in second, while Expansion and Interpatation were also up close.
On the far turn, Gio Ponti inched closer to the leader while four-wide and still in hand. He waited for traffic to clear at the top of the lane in the well-bunched field, then was sent after Mission Approved, who carried a two-length advantage into the final furlong and was still running well.
Gio Ponti continued his pursuit, passed Expansion in deep stretch, and collared Mission Approved in the final strides. The final time on the firm turf was 2:16.20, much slower than his winning time of 2:12.56 a year ago.
Mission Approved was a half-length better than third-place Expansion.
“As the race unfolded, I was a little concerned about the slow pace, but I was very happy with the way he was traveling,” said Dominguez, who was also in the irons for the 2009 Man o’ War. “Turning for home, I felt it was a matter of getting a little racing luck. When he split horses, at that point, I felt a little more confident and that he would get there. (Mission Approved) ran an excellent race. I am very happy, not only for myself but for the horse.”
Gio Ponti was bred in Kentucky by Shane Ryan's Kilboy Estate (Ryan is president of Castleton Lyons) and is out of the Alydar mare Chipeta Springs. He earned his eighth graded stakes, fifth grade I win, and upped his earnings to $4,123,800. The bay horse was an unlucky runner-up last out in the June 5 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT), his first race since finishing fourth in the Dubai World Cup sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I) in March.
“Everyone made a big deal of him getting beaten the last time, (but) I never had a doubt that the horse was the leader of his division, and I'm delighted with the way he ran today,” said Clement. “The race was completely against him; they walked in front, he was last, but he's good enough to be versatile and win the race.
“He's back winning, and we'll go for the Arlington Million or the Pacific Classic (both grade I), one of the two. Now we can enjoy it a little bit, see how he comes out of it. His well-being is the main thing. As long as the horse is doing well, we'll be back in one of those two races.”
Sent off as the 2-5 choice, Gio Ponti paid $2.80, $2.30, and $2.10. The exacta (8-5) with Mission Approved returned $66.50 and the trifecta (8-5-4) was $252.50.