One of the most accomplished racehorses in recent history, Castleton Lyons Farm's Gio Ponti returns to the turf at Belmont Park on Saturday to run in his third straight Grade 1, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap.
The 139th running of the historic grass race, run at 1 ¼ miles on the Inner Turf Course, is race No. 10 on the card, the third leg of the $1 Million Guaranteed All Stakes Pick 4 that culminates with the Belmont Stakes.
By any measure, the career of Gio Ponti, now racing as a 6-year-old, is remarkable. His $5,337,800 in lifetime earnings ranks 28th on the all-time list. Of his 24 career starts, 14 have come in Grade 1 races, six of which he has won; 13 of his past 14 races have been Grade 1's.
Perhaps most amazing of all is the fact that in all his starts, only twice has he been beaten by more than two lengths.
“I've always liked him since he was 3 years old,” said trainer Christophe Clement. “I'm very conscious of what he's meant to me and the barn and the owners. He's training as well if not better than last year. All the signs are there. He's probably the best horse I've ever trained.”
Gio Ponti won the Manhattan in 2009 and finished second to stablemate Winchester last year after checking sharply on the far turn.
So far this year, the son of Tale of the Cat is on the same path as in 2010. He opened his campaign finishing fifth in the Group 1, $10 million Dubai World Cup, beaten 1 ¾ lengths. As he did last year, Gio Ponti now moves on to the Manhattan .
“He's been breezing every week on the Belmont grass,” Clement said. “This is home for him. We're going race by race. We're on more or less a similar schedule (as last year). We're not obligated, though, to do it like last year.”
Gio Ponti the 122-pound highweight, will certainly have plenty pace to run at in the Manhattan, as the race has attracted a bevy of speed horses.
Mission Approved, a 7-year-old who hasn't raced since losing to Gio Ponti by a neck last July in the Grade 1 Man o' War, has been on the lead at the half-mile call in eight of his past nine starts. His trainer-owner, Naipaul Chatterpaul, is fueling his own fire, having also entered the sizzling turf claimer Wishful Tomcat, who has won four of six grass starts. Also in the field is Straight Story, trained by Alan Goldberg, who likes to run with the leaders.
“This horse has a lot of back class,” Chatterpaul said of Mission Approved, who he claimed for $35,000 and then almost knocked off Gio Ponti in his next start at odds of 53-1. “He's not a stranger in all these races.”
Prince Will I Am, winner of the Grade 1 Jamaica Handicap last fall at Belmont , also figures to benefit from the presence of several speed horses. Trained by Michelle Nihei for Casa Farms One LLC, Prince Will I Am opened his 4-year-old season with a victory in the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream.
He then finished third in the Grade 3 Pan American and a troubled but close-up fifth in the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.
“We were victim of a field that looked like it would have pace and didn't have any,” Nihei said of the race at Churchill. “It was hard to close. He made up four lengths but he couldn't get around and go by.
“I have no trepidation about putting this horse up against the top turfers this year. He really is a star. He's coming into the race really, really well.”
Al Khali, from the stable of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, comes in off an eighth-place finish in the Turf Classic. He was also well-beaten by Prince Will I Am in the Mac Diarmada, but the son of Medaglia d'Oro thrives at Belmont, having won his past two starts on its grass, including the Grade 2 Bowling Green last fall.
“He loves Belmont Park ,” said Mott's assistant, Leana Williford. “The only poor race over this track was a bog in the Joe Hirsch. If it's firm, he's going to be tough. This is a huge horse, and he doesn't like tight turns. Hopefully we put it all together on Saturday.”
One of the most fascinating entrants in the field of 10 is 7-year-old Bold Hawk, who didn't race between 2007 and 2010 because of a variety of ailments. The giant son of Silver Hawk won the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby at 3 and has returned running as if never away.
“Every time something happened, we gave him six months off,” said trainer Jimmy Toner. “He had a chip in the hind ankle, a suspensory, blood platelet with bone marrow surgery, a shoulder thing. It wasn't like he was out of training for three years. We'd fix him up and something would happen.
“He's 17 hands high,” Toner said. “He looks like a Clydesdale. Thank God he's got an owner like Ronnie Nicholson. I'd say, 'Let's give him away,' and he'd say, 'Let's give him more time.'”
Trainer Mark Frostad has shipped Sam-Son Farm's 7-year-old roan Windward Islands down from Woodbine for the Manhattan . The son of Cozzene has been consistently close in top-class races, won the Grade 2 Nijinsky last July, and comes off a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Elkhorn in April at Keeneland.
“He can close off a slow pace or be farther back and close off a fast pace,” said Frostad, who has engaged jockey Julien Leparoux for the race. “He's a pretty versatile.”
Leading Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien will run Viscount Nelson, who competed in four straight Group 1 races last year in England and Ireland , including a third-place finish at 40-1 in the Irish 2000 Guineas .
Bim Bam, third for trainer Ron Moquett in the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness Day, completes the field.
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