Who’s the best turf horse currently in training in North America? Is it Midnight Cry Stables’ Einstein, the reigning grass horse king, or is it Castleton Lyons’ Gio Ponti, Einstein’s young lion of a challenger?
Or could it be Jonathan Sheppard’s Just as Well – well under the national radar until his impressive late run to victory in last weekend’s grade III Arlington Handicap? The answer may come in the Arlington Million (gr. IT), as a strong contingent is lining up for Aug. 8 event.
Einstein, winner of Churchill’s Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) on Kentucky Derby Day May 2, was most recently third beaten only a length in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) on the main track at the Twin Spires oval June 13. However, in that effort the 7-year-old bobbled early and then was checked and bumped repeatedly during subsequent nightmarish traffic problems.
The Brazilian-bred son of Spend a Buck, on course to make his next start in the Million, quietly breezed a half-mile in :52.80 at Churchill July 12 in a maintenance move for his upcoming Chicago appearance.
Gio Ponti, however, won his third straight grade I race July 11 when he came from off the pace to capture the $500,000 Man o’ War at Belmont Park by 1 ¾ lengths. Previously, the 4-year-old son of Tale of the Cat won the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) on Belmont Stakes day June 6, as well as last winter’s $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap (gr. IT) at Santa Anita.
“This just confirms that at the moment, I’m afraid, he’s got to be the leader of the turf division here” said Gio Ponti’s trainer Christophe Clement following the Man o’ War.
Now joining those two as a new Arlington Million threat following last weeek’s Arlington Handicap triumph is Just as Well, who closed with a rush to be best by a length in that $200,000 turf test at the Arlington Million distance of 10 furlongs.
Two weeks ago Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard wasn’t sure his son of A. P. Indy was even ready for last week’s race, but following that excellent outing, Just as Well is under prominent consideration for the Million.
Also deserving that consideration is Patricia Generazio’s Presious Passion, front-running hero of Monmouth’s grade I United Nations Stakes July 4. The 6-year-old Royal Anthem gelding won that same race on The Jersey Shore last summer, but trainer Mary Hartmann decided to forego the Million in favor of Saratoga’s Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap (gr. IT), where Presious Passion finished fourth. This year, however, Hartmann is giving the Million a second look.
In California, Irish-bred Artiste Royal, owned by David and Jill Heerensperger and conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale, appears to be on his way to the Million.
“We’re probably headed that way,” said Drysdale earlier this week.
In Kentucky, Circle E Racing’s Mr. Sidney, winner of Churchill’s Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) July 4 and Keeneland’s Makers Mark Mile (gr. IT) April 10, now appears likely for the Arlington Million, according to Lee Einsidler of Circle C Racing.
“Bill Mott called me and said it (the Million) makes all the sense in the world,” Einsidler told Blood-Horse early this week referring of Mr. Sidney’s Hall of Fame trainer who saddled Paradise Creek to win the 1994 Arlington Million.
On the European front, remaining under strong consideration for the Arlington Million is Teruya Yoshida’s Cima de Triomphe, fourth in Great Britain’s group I Coral-Eclipse July 4 at Sandown behind three of Europe’s best, and a winner of Sandown’s group III Brigadier Gerard Stakes May 28 before that.
Now mentioned as a possibility for an Atlantic crossing in less than three weeks for the Million is Sheikh Mohammed’s Imbongi, third at Ascot in the group II Summer Mile Stakes July 11 and winner of Newmarket’s group III Criterion Stake before that on June 27. The South African-bred is trained by Mike de Kock, who brought that same ownership’s Archipenko to Chicago to finish second in last summer’s Million.
Also possible for the Million from Great Britain is Sheikh Hamdan’s Tazeez from the yard of John Gosden. That Kentucky-bred son of Silver Hawk out of a Nureyev mare was fifth in the group I Prince of Wales’s Stakes June 17 during the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting, beaten four lengths at the wire.