08/06/2009 11:00PM

Americans look the best in Million

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Gio Ponti has won three Grade 1 turf stakes in a row heading into Saturday's Arlington Million.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - A European horse, Spirit One, won the Arlington Million in 2008, followed home by Europeans Archipenko and Mount Nelson. The North Americans might as well have stayed in the barn. Ergo, the thinking might go, the three Europeans entered in the 27th Arlington Million here Saturday rate an edge on the Americans.

Not so fast.

None of these invading Euros has the established top-class form of recent overseas Million winners. But the U.S. horses this time are a powerhouse bunch compared to the home team the last few years. Consider that of the nine U.S. Grade 1 turf races contested in North America this year, the Million includes the winners of six and the second-place finisher in a seventh. And atop that group sits formidable Gio Ponti.

Gio Ponti won the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile at fast-playing Santa Anita in March. His summer has started with victories in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap at 1 1/4 miles over wet turf and in the 1 3/8-mile Man o' War over a very firm course. Distance does not compromise him. Course conditions do not daunt him. Ace trainer Christophe Clement has pointed the horse to the Million for months. Might it be the Euros who are no match for the American this year?

That question will be answered about 4:42 Central on Saturday afternoon, when the nine horses in the Million take to the gorgeous Arlington grass. The 1 1/4-mile Million, a Breeders' Cup Challenge Win and You're In race for the BC Turf, starts at the head of the homestretch, with the gate set up at the end of the far turn, which can cause problems for horses drawn wide. A temporary rail in the middle of the wide turf course will create two courses Saturday, an inner for the

lesser grass races on a 12-race card that starts at 12:15 Central, the outer for the three Grade 1 turf contests.

Those races, linked by a $300,000-guaranteed pick three, begin with the Secretariat (race 7), which has 11 horses and the highest degree of uncertainty in the sequence. Giant Oak is the morning-line choice; others will take action. Pure Clan is the favorite in race 8, the Beverly D. The Beverly D. and Million can be viewed on an ESPN telecast running from 3:30-5 p.m Central. The entire card - a blockbuster and well worth diving into - can be seen on HRTV.

It may feel like a million degrees on Million Day. After a summer-less summer, hot air will stream in early Saturday, and the mercury could reach 93. Rain, perhaps heavy, is forecast Friday and Friday night. The turf here is quite firm now and would not get too soft, barring torrential downpours.

Not that anything has bothered Gio Ponti. The 4-year-old Tale of the Cat colt owned by Castleton Lyons has won 8 of 13 overall, 7 of 11 on turf, and has finished first or second at five venues. Gio Ponti's losses have come with trouble ranging from significant to serious, and Clement, who has won 135 grass stakes, rates Gio Ponti as highly as any horse he has trained.

Gio Ponti faces the multi-dimensional Einstein, winner of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in May. Undiminished by age at 7, Einstein has won important races on dirt, turf, and synthetic, but has done the most on grass and makes only his second turf start since last year's Million.

"I do think grass is his best surface," trainer Helen Pitts said.

But Pitts - and, surely, others - wonder how Presious Passion will affect their chances. Presious Passion won the Grade 1 United Nations over 1 3/8 miles last out at Monmouth, winging to a 20-length lead and winning by two lengths after setting torrid splits.

"A horse like that can make for a very weird race," Pitts said. "I don't want to go a half in 47."

Longshot Recapturetheglory has some speed, but probably not Presious Passion speed, and Presious Passion's trainer, Mary Hartmann, has no plans to alter tactics.

"I feel if he goes and opens up like he did in the U.N., it kind of takes them out of their game plan," said Hartmann, who does think Presious Passion might prefer 12 furlongs to 10.

A fast pace with fading front-runners could play to Just as Well, who at age 6 remains lightly raced and potentially improving. Just as Well rallied from far back to win the Arlington Handicap last month and is in the expert hands of owner-trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

"I'm not sure we've quite seen the best of him," Sheppard said.

Bill Mott, seeking his first Million winner since Paradise Creek in 1994, sends out Mr. Sidney, winner of the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile in April. Mr. Sidney is 5 for 7 on grass but has never won beyond 1 1/16 miles.

And finally, those Europeans. Six-year-old Stotsfold appears to be a Group 3-type ambitiously spotted. The other two, Gloria de Campeao and Cima de Triomphe, look possible, but neither is as proven even as 13-1 upset winner Spirit One last year, to say nothing of past Euro-victors Powerscourt, Sulamani, and Silvano.

Pegged as a dirt horse before surprising at 24-1 in the Group 1 Singapore Cup on May 17, Gloria de Campeao has speed and should take up a tracking position.

Cima de Triomphe comes from the English stable of Luca Cumani, who won the 1983 Million with Tolomeo. At age 4, Cima de Triomphe has upside but has been well beaten in five Group 1 starts since capturing the 2008 Italian Derby.