On Saturday, November 5, Gio Ponti will be making his fourth appearance in the Breeders’ Cup, a feat trainer Christophe Clement attributes in part to careful planning, in part to paying attention to detail, and in part to his top-quality staff.
But mostly to Gio Ponti.
“Nothing happens without the horse,” said Clement of the 6-year-old son of Tale of the Cat, a three-time Eclipse Award winner who has earned more than $6 million in his remarkable career. “We play with the small percentage of things that we can control; if the track is not perfect, he does not gallop. But the No. 1 thing is Gio Ponti.
“He raced in the Breeders’ Cup as a 2-year-old. He’s six now, and he’s still competing in the Breeders’ Cup. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Ironically, Gio Ponti’s first Breeders’ Cup appearance was the worst performance of his life as he finished eighth behind Nownownow in the Juvenile Turf at Monmouth Park in 2007. The four-length loss was the biggest margin of defeat to date in Gio Ponti’s career, in which he has been first or second in 22 of his 28 starts overall, including seven Grade 1 victories.
Is he consistently brilliant, or brilliantly consistent?
“You cannot find much better than him when it comes to consistency,” said Clement of the Castleton Lyons color-bearer. “And to be consistent at the Grade 1 level makes you brilliant. He’s won seven Grade 1s. That’s brilliant.”
Having won Keeneland’s Bourbon Stakes as a 2-year-old, Gio Ponti became a multiple graded stakes winner at age 3, taking the Grade 3 Hill Prince at Belmont Park, the Grade 2 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, and the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort in an off-the-turf effort at Santa Anita.
Gio Ponti’s star continued to rise in 2009 as he won four straight Grade 1s, including the Man o’ War and Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicaps at Belmont Park, and finished second to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita, earning a dual championship as North America’s top turf male and top older male.
It was a difficult act to follow, and a stunning nose loss in his 2010 debut and a subsequent fourth-place finish in the Dubai World Cup did not auger well for the now 5-year-old horse. Second to stablemate Winchester in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan in June, Gio Ponti notched his first Grade 1 of the year with a repeat victory in the Man o’ War. Beaten a half-length defending his title in the Arlington Million, Gio Ponti next turned in what Clement considers the best performance of his career in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile.
Shuffled back to last rounding the turn, Gio Ponti split rivals nearing the eighth pole to gain the lead with 110 yards to go and cruised home a one-length winner. The two Grade 1 victories, along with a second to three-time champion Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, was more than enough to earn Gio Ponti a second Eclipse as top turf male in 2010.
“His second to Zenyatta in the Classic was a remarkable performance,” said Clement. “But among his seven Grade 1’s, his win in the Shadwell Mile last year might have been his most impressive. It was the way he cruised, and his turn of foot is an impressive thing.
Even this year, in that last eighth of a mile he has that little gear that they don’t all seem to have.”
Pre-entered in both the Classic and the Mile, Gio Ponti heads into the 2011 Breeders’ Cup with one victory from five starts this year, a successful defense of his Shadwell Turf Mile title following second-place finishes in the Man o’ War and Arlington Million, a third-place finish in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan and a fifth in the Dubai World Cup in his only non-turf start.
On Wednesday, October 26, Gio Ponti had his final tune-up over his home track for the Breeders’ Cup, covering five furlongs in 1:02.11 on the inner turf.
“We are less aggressive with him than any other horse because I believe he can overcome his fitness level more than anything else,” said Clement. “[NYRA Director of Racing Surfaces] Glen Kozak has been a tremendous help all year long, to allow me to breeze on the turf in New York, which was a great asset. That’s one of the reasons why the horse has been so consistent; but again, it is all because of the horse.
“He’s always there when I needed him,” he added. “I enjoy being around him, training him, watching him race, because I know he’s going to try. And that’s a great thing.”