07/04/2011 2:22PM

Belmont Park: Gio Ponti, Mission Approved headed into Round 3

Justin N. Lane
Mission Approved, with Jose Espinoza riding, wins the Manhattan, with Gio Ponti third.

ELMONT, N.Y. – The rematch, or more accurately, the rubber match, is set.

Gio Ponti and Mission Approved, who have split decisions in Grade 1 stakes – albeit 11 months apart – will meet for the third time in Saturday’s $600,000 Man o’ War, the final Grade 1 event of the Belmont spring/summer meet. A field of seven was entered for the Man o’ War, including the Irish shipper Cape Blanco, a multiple Group 1 winner.

No one knew a rivalry was budding at this time last year when Gio Ponti needed every inch of Belmont’s inner turf course stretch to run down 53-1 shot Mission Approved to take the Man o’ War by a neck. While Gio Ponti went on to win the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile and finish second to the incomparable mare Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile – and earn a second straight Eclipse Award as North America’s top male turf horse – Mission Approved went to the sidelines.

Last month, Mission Approved, who had been claimed by his owner/trainer, Naipaul Chatterpaul, for $35,000 in June 2010, returned from an 11-month layoff to upset the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap in front-running fashion, with Gio Ponti finishing third.

In the Manhattan, Gio Ponti carried 122 pounds, conceding eight pounds to Mission Approved. Saturday’s Man o’ War is run under allowance conditions, and Mission Approved is the starting highweight of 123 pounds, spotting three pounds to Gio Ponti.

“Gio Ponti is a good horse, but I like my horse,” said Chatterpaul. “He’s training well, doing well right now. He’s going to run a big race.”

Mission Approved drew the rail and will be ridden by Jose Espinoza. Gio Ponti will break from post 5 under Ramon Dominguez.

Christophe Clement, Gio Ponti’s trainer, is hopeful that the turf will be firmer than it was in the Manhattan, when rain made for yielding ground.

“I think he’s got a more efficient turn of foot on firmer ground,” Clement said.

Gio Ponti has won the last two runnings of the Man o’ War. He would become the first three-time winner of this race if he is able to win it Saturday.

Cape Blanco, trained by Aidan O’Brien, won the Irish Derby and the Irish Champion Stakes at 3. He is winless in three starts this year, though he was beaten only one length – and finished three-quarters of a length in front of Gio Ponti – in the Dubai World Cup.

Others entered include Bearpath, fourth in this race a year ago, Al Khali, Boisterous, and Nownownow.