08/11/2011 3:12PM

Arlington Million: Will travel take its toll on Cape Blanco?


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Racing fans and bettors know this much: If Cape Blanco runs Saturday in the Arlington Million like he ran July 9 at Belmont winning the Man o’ War Stakes, he almost certainly will triumph.

But that is about all they know.

Days after the Man o’ War, Cape Blanco had returned to trainer Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle Stables in Ireland, a place from which information escapes in tiniest increments. Cape Blanco and his stablemate, Treasure Beach, were the last foreign horses to arrive at Arlington this week, coming via private charter on Wednesday. They exit quarantine Friday morning, when onlookers can get one brief glance of the likely favorites for the Million and the Secretariat performing the mildest of exercise.

“The horses have traveled well, settled in well, and we’re very happy with them,” said Pat Keating, O’Brien’s traveling lad, rehashing the anodyne quotation spoken around the globe of O’Brien-trained shippers.

Cape Blanco, a 4-year-old Galileo colt, is one of 10 horses entered in the 29th Arlington Million, a 1 1/4-mile grass race. The Million field features a fairly compelling rematch between Cape Blanco and Gio Ponti, who won the 2009 Million and finished second last year, and who was second to Cape Blanco last month in New York. And while the Million itself is not the deepest race, the other two Grade 1’s, the Secretariat and the Beverly D., are uncommonly strong. Treasure Beach heads the $400,000 Secretariat, but Banned and Willcox Inn can challenge him. Stacelita, River Jetez, and Cheetah top the $750,000 Beverly D., but none of the 11 entrants can summarily be dismissed. The winners of the Million and Beverly D. gain automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup Turf and Filly and Mare Turf, respectively, through the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Win and You’re In program.

Weather conditions for the big day are iffy. There’s a decent chance of rain Friday night, with more showers and thunderstorms possible most of Saturday. The turf was rated yielding for Thursday’s program.

Cape Blanco won the Man o’ War over good going, and it would take a great deal of precipitation to turn the course soft enough to hurt his chances. Of greater concern are other factors. Cape Blanco has not produced consecutive peak efforts since the summer of 2009 when he was 2, and the colt’s travel schedule this year has been demanding. In March, he was flown from Ireland to Dubai, where he finished fourth in the Dubai World Cup. Then it was back home for a pair of middling tries in France and England before the trip to and from New York, and back once more to Arlington. And if Cape Blanco isn’t looking for a traveler’s lounge where he can unwind with a glass of wine between flights, he should be tough to beat.

Meanwhile, Gio Ponti’s connections are watching the weather.

“I just hope it doesn’t rain Friday or Saturday,” trainer Christophe Clement said early this week.

Gio Ponti greatly prefers firm turf to soft, but Clement disputes the notion that Gio Ponti has lost a step from his glory days of 2009.

“Some of the best numbers he has ever done have been in his last two races,” Clement said. “I think the last 60 days he’s been as good as ever. His works have been very good. He’s very fit looking.”

Gio Ponti beat Just as Well in the 2009 Million, but after making a wide move and leading late in last year’s edition, he was run down by rail-skimming Debussy. Gio Ponti has dropped out well behind a slow pace in this two turf races this year, a third-place finish in the Manhattan Handicap and his second to Cape Blanco, but Clement said he will leave tactics to Ramon Dominguez.

“Ramon knows the horse inside out,” Clement said.

Wigmore Hall, second in the 2010 Secretariat during his first trip to the U.S., tailed off earlier this year after a good two-race string in Dubai. Trainer Mike Bell sent Wigmore Hall to a farm for rest following seventh-place finish in the May 22 Singapore Cup, and said he thinks Wigmore Hall can return to better form.

“I think I’ve got him in pretty good shape,” Bell said. “He’s run well fresh in the past.”

Arlington Handicap winner Tajaaweed also prefers firm going, but trainer Dan Peitz said he thinks 6-year-old Tajaaweed is a better horse this summer than last, when he finished sixth in the Million.

“I just hope he runs his race this year,” said Peitz.

Rahystrada’s trainer, Scooter Hughes, also believes his middle-aged horse has come on since his fourth-place Million finish last season. Rahystrada won the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup last out with a strong late surge.

“I hate to say he’s more mature at his age, but he seems that way,” Hughes said. “He was kind of a grind-them-down horse before, but last time he had that burst of speed. He’s really never done that before.”

The likely pacesetter is Mission Approved, who led all the way beating Gio Ponti in the Manhattan before tiring to fourth in the 1 3/8-mile one Man o’ War.

“I think cutting back in distance is going to help,” said trainer Naipaul Chatterpaul.

The American horses Proceed Bee and General Perfect look overmatched, but French raider Zack Hall has a chance if his improving 12-furlong form transfers to this shorter race.

The Secretariat, the first of the major stakes, goes as race 8, followed by the Beverly D. and the Million. First post Saturday is 12:30 p.m. Central, with the Million scheduled for 5:15. The three Grade 1’s are linked by a $1 pick three, a 50-cent pick four beginning in race 6 offers a $200,000 guaranteed pool, and the 50-cent pick five linking races 6-10 carries a $100,000 guarantee. HRTV has a crew at Arlington for the weekend, and the Million will be nationally televised by WGN.