06/08/2011 3:12PM

Belmont Park: Gio Ponti looks strong for Manhattan

Barbara D. Livingston
Gio Ponti will be seeking his second victory in the Grade 1 Manhattan Stakes on Saturday.

ELMONT, N.Y. – For those in the sport that lament the lack of a star or the fact that horses are retired prematurely, perhaps it’s time to get reacquainted with Gio Ponti, the most accomplished horse in training.

A winner of 11 of 24 starts, including six Grade 1 stakes, and three Eclipse Awards, the 6-year-old Gio Ponti makes his North American seasonal debut in Saturday’s Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park. The Manhattan is one of five graded events on the undercard of the 13-race Belmont Stakes program that begins at 11:35 a.m. and ends close to 8 p.m.

Gio Ponti drew post 4 and is the 122-pound highweight under Ramon Dominguez in a field of 10 set to run 1 1/4 miles over the inner turf.

Gio Ponti, who has earned $5.3 million, won the Manhattan in 2009 and was beaten a half-length by stablemate Winchester in this race last year. As was the case a year ago, Gio Ponti starts in the Manhattan coming off a narrow loss in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Last year, he ran fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths. This year, he finished fifth, beaten 1 3/4 lengths.

Though a year older, Gio Ponti appears to be training better this year than he was last year at this time. His two most recent workouts, both in company at Belmont, featured strong finishes.

Trainer Christophe Clement said that entering last year’s Manhattan Gio Ponti “was a little bit light in training and he overcame that. Yet again, it’s because he’s such a good horse. This year, he had a more consistent preparation.”

Among Gio Ponti’s sternest challengers figures to be Prince Will I Am, who won the Grade 1 Jamaica over this course last year as a 3-year-old and won two graded events at Gulfstream to begin this year. Most recently, he was fifth in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill behind loose-on-the-lead winner Get Stormy over less-than-firm ground.

John Velazquez rides Prince Will I Am from post 8. Other notables include Windward Islands, Irish invader Viscount Nelson, and Fort Marcy winner Straight Story.

Acorn: Turbulent Descent stands out

Turbulent Descent is the only horse who shipped from Southern California for races on the Belmont Stakes card, and she could be the heaviest favorite on the card when she faces five in the Grade 1, $300,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies.

Turbulent Descent has won 5 of 6 starts, including a five-length score in the Grade 2 Beaumont on April 17. This has been the target since then, according to trainer Mike Puype.

“We talked about this way before the Beaumont,” Puype said Wednesday morning. “To be ready and show what she’s worth and how good she is, we would need to pull no punches.”

David Flores is coming in from Southern California, and this is his only mount on the card.

Victoria’s Wildcat, winner of the Eight Belles Stakes, looms a solid second choice.

Just a Game: Mott seeks fifth win

Trainer Bill Mott will seek his fifth win in the Just a Game Stakes when he sends out Aviate in the Grade 1, $400,000 race for fillies and mares at a mile on the turf. Mott trains Aviate for Juddmonte Farms, which has won this race three times. Last year, Mott and Juddmonte won the race with Proviso.

Aviate won the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day after running third in the Honey Fox in her seasonal debut in March.

Top contenders include Fantasia, C.S. Silk, Cherokee Queen, Much Rejoicing, and Strike the Bell.

True North: Calibrachoa returns

Calibrachoa, who has won three stakes since being claimed for $40,000 by Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher in November, returns from a three-month layoff in the Grade 2, $150,000 True North Handicap for older sprinters at six furlongs.

Calibrachoa was scratched from the Grade 1 Carter on April 9 with a bruised foot. He last raced March 5, when he won the Grade 3 Tom Fool over Aqueduct’s inner track, earning a 107 Beyer Speed Figure.

Trappe Shot, the entry of D’ Funnybone and This Ones for Phil, as well as Rule by Night are other contenders in this heat.

Stephens: ‘J.J.’s Lucky’ cuts back

J.J.’s Lucky Train, third in the Grade 3 Derby Trial at one mile last out, cuts back to his preferred seven-furlong distance in Saturday’s Grade 2, $250,000 Woody Stephens Stakes.

J.J’s Lucky Train, is 2 for 2 at seven furlongs, including a neck victory over next-out winner Vengeful Wildcat in the Grade 3 Bay Shore. His challengers include Swale winner Travelin Man, recent stakes winner Arch Traveler, and Justin Phillip.