Christophe Clement has had many talented stakes winners during his years as one of the nation’s leading turf conditioners, but the French-born trainer now admits Gio Ponti may be at the top of that list. On Oct. 3, the 4-year-old son of Tale of the Cat seeks his fifth consecutive grade I grass victory when he lines up for the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park.
The 1 1/2-mile Turf Classic will be Gio Ponti’s final prep before shipping to California for the Breeders’ Cup. Though Clement has not said which race the bay colt will race in, the most likely spot will be the $3 million Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) on Nov. 7.
“He might be, or is, the best horse I have ever trained,” Clement said of the nation’s leading older turf horse who won the Arlington Million (gr. IT) in his last start. “And I probably enjoy him more now than I would have 15 years ago because I know how difficult it is just to win a grade I. He brings a lot of enjoyment to all of us, to everyone in the barn—grooms, exercise riders, myself and his owner.”
Owned by Shane Ryan’s Castleton Lyons, Gio Ponti has captured two of his grade I victories this season over Belmont’s turf course—the June 6 Manhattan Handicap and the July 11 Man o’ War Stakes. As a juvenile, he broke his maiden there, and last year won the Hill Prince (gr. IIIT) and was runner-up by less than a length in the Jamaica Handicap (gr. IIT) on the same course.
Regular rider Ramon Dominguez will have the mount, and they will break from post 5. Gio Ponti, the 6-5 morning-line choice, was bred in Kentucky by Ryan’s Kilboy Estate and is out of the Alydar mare Chipeta Springs. He has earned more than $2.1 million from 14 starts.
His near-perfect record at Belmont does not bode well for the colt’s eight challengers, but if there is a glimmer of hope it lies in the fact that this will be Gio Ponti’s first try at 12 furlongs. He had plenty left in the 1 3/8-mile Man o’ War, suggesting that the distance won’t be a problem, but there is the element of unknown. He will also face a solid group that includes grade I winners Presious Passion, Telling, and Grand Couturier, winner of this event a year ago.
“A good horse is a good horse,” Clement said. “(Gio Ponti) loves Belmont Park, and I’ve always thought that he is a better horse in cooler weather. This is not a handicap, so the weights are the same, which is great. Now, it’s up to him.”
Patricia Generazio’s Presious Passion won the Monmouth Stakes and United Nations (gr. IT) in New Jersey consecutively before a disappointing eighth-place effort in the Aug. 8 Arlington Million when he tired badly after a mile. The 6-year-old gelded son of Royal Anthem has won four stakes since December and earned more than $1.8 million in his career. He finished sixth in this event last year. Elvis Trujillo will ride for Mary Hartmann, who would prefer a firm turf course for her charge.
Alex and JoAnn Lieblong’s Telling pulled a 33-1 shocker last out in the Aug. 15 Sword Dancer Invitational (gr. IT) at Saratoga for his first stakes win. The 5-year-old son of A.P Indy broke a 10-race losing streak in his two-length score. This will be his first start at Belmont. Javier Castellano will be aboard once again for trainer Steve Hobby.
“He doesn’t have to win again to prove anything to us,” said Hobby. “The one thing is, Gio Ponti hasn’t been a mile and half yet, and my horse loves it.”
Marc Keller’s Grand Couturier was brilliant in the 2008 Turf Classic, as he took over nearing the top of the lane and drew off to win by 10 1/4 lengths. That score came one race after a victory in the Sword Dancer, which was the second year in a row the Grand Lodge horse took that event.
Trained by Bobby Ribaudo, Grand Couturier had been off the board in three starts this season, including a fifth-place effort in his bid for a third straight Sword Dancer, but rebounded with a win in the Bowling Green Handicap (gr. IIT) Sept. 13 on Belmont’s yielding ground. Alan Garcia will stay aboard the 6-year-old, and they will break from the outside post.
“He’s doing fine,” said Ribaudo. “He came out of his last race well, but Gio Ponti will be tough. We may get (the softer ground) we like on Saturday and we’ll take any edge we can get.”
Winchester, a 4-year-old son of Theatrical who was runner-up in the Bowling Green, was entered as a coupled entry with Gio Ponti but will likely go only if the race is taken off turf .
The Turf Classic will go as race 9 on the card, just before the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational (gr. I). Post time is 5:09 p.m. EDT.
$600,000 Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT, Race 9, 5:09 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/2 Miles (Turf) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Interpatation (KY), R Albarado, 126, R Barbara
2. Al Khali (KY), K J Desormeaux, 121, W I Mott
3. Telling (KY), J Castellano, 126, S Hobby
4. Musketier (GER), E S Prado, 126, R L Attfield
5. Gio Ponti (KY), R A Dominguez, 126, C Clement
6. Winchester (VA), R A Dominguez, 126, C Clement
7. Ready's Echo (KY), J R Velazquez, 126, T A Pletcher
8. Presious Passion (FL), L E Trujillo, 126, M Hartmann
9. Grand Couturier (GB), A Garcia, 126, R Ribaudo