Race of the Week 2017

Gio Ponti, Winchester Ready for Cup

Christophe Clement studied the wall of photographs in his office at Belmont Park for a moment before pointing to a winner’s circle shot of Forbidden Apple after his 2001 victory in the Grade 1 Manhattan, and then to one of Honor Glide following his 1999 triumph in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer.


“Two good ones,” said the trainer. “I’ve had some good colts, and some very good fillies, but I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a horse as Gio Ponti, or Winchester this year.”


Having split Belmont Park’s three most prestigious turf races between them in 2010, the two 5-year-olds are heading to Churchill Downs for separate engagements in the Breeders’ Cup on November 6. Winchester, winner of the Grade 1 Manhattan and the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, is definite for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but the options are still open for Gio Ponti, the dual Eclipse Award winner as 2009’s top turf male and top older male.


An impressive winner of the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in his most recent start, the son of Tale of the Cat was pre-entered in both the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on dirt, a race in which he finished second to Zenyatta last year over the artificial surface at Santa Anita.


“His career speaks for itself,” said Clement of the Castleton Lyons color-bearer, a winner of more than $4.6 million with a record of 11-7-0 in 22 lifetime starts, including nine graded stakes wins, six of them Grade 1’s. “He’s a better horse now than he was at age 2 and 3, but don’t forget, he was a top-class horse, a stakes winner, then as well.”


By contrast, Winchester, who is owned by his breeders, Bertram and Diana Firestone, is just coming into his own this year. After launching his career in Ireland for trainer Dermot Weld, he was a 7 ¼-length winner of his United States debut in the Grade 1 Secretariat, but subsequently failed to hit the board in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Turf or the Hollywood Turf Cup in December.


Sent East to Clement, the Theatrical colt was discovered to have suffered a small knee fracture, which necessitated an eight-month layoff.


“He needed the time off, which he got, and after that it was always catch-up with him,” said the trainer, who saddled Winchester to a pair of second-place finishes and one third in four 2009 starts. “But this year, he’s really blossomed.”


Following an allowance victory at Keeneland in his third start of 2010, Winchester stunned his more accomplished stablemate with a half-length victory in the 1 ¼-mile Manhattan on July 10, and next finished third in the Grade 1 United Nations. A neck short of Al Khali in Belmont’s Grade 2, 1 3/8-mile Bowling Green, Winchester earned his second Grade 1 with a powerful late run that carried him past Paddy O’Prado and on to a one-length win in the 1 ½-mile Turf Classic on October 2.


A week later at Keeneland, Gio Ponti extended his 2010 record to 2-3-0 from six starts with his Shadwell win. He also won the Grade 1 Man O’ War at Belmont in July, and finished second as the defending champion in the Arlington Million, the aforementioned Manhattan and a stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February. In his only non-turf start of the year, he was fourth, beaten only 1 ¼ lengths in the $10 million Dubai World Cup run over the synthetic in March.


“Every day of my life I realize how lucky I am to train these two horses,” said Clement. “Winchester is more of a mile-and-a-half horse, while Gio Ponti is more of a mile, mile-and-a-quarter horses. But when you look at the races they’ve won – the Man o’War, the Turf Classic, the Manhattan – these are not easy races to win. And Gio Ponti’s race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year was superb.


“Everyone in the barn thoroughly enjoys training them,” he added. “For me, winning is the name of the game, and I want to win with my $25,000 claimers as much as I do with the Grade 1 horses. But I am delighted to win good races with good horses. The best thing about Gio Ponti and Winchester is, they overcome my training – the lesser ones can’t.”





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