07/08/2011 11:24AM

Belmont Park: Gio Ponti a scratch if going is off for Man o' War


ELMONT, N.Y. - Mother Nature will have a say in the complexion and the outcome of Saturday's Grade 1, $600,000 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park.

If thunderstorms that were forecast for Friday night make the Belmont turf course soft or yielding for Saturday's program, Gio Ponti, who will be favored to win an unprecedented third consecutive Man o' War Stakes, would scratch from the race, trainer Christophe Clement said Friday morning.

MAN O' WAR: Video preview and past performances »

"If the ground is good or on the firmer side of good or firm, the horse will be running," Clement said. "If the ground is good to soft or soft to yielding, I'm afraid we will be scratching."

Clement and Gio Ponti's owner, Shane Ryan of Castleton Lyons, believe Gio Ponti was compromised by yielding turf when he was third in the Manhattan last month at Belmont Park.

"I still think that even though he got beat in the Manhattan the horse ran a very good race," Clement said Thursday. "The course condition killed me.''

Heavy rain hit the area on Thursday and forced the New York Racing Association to move three of Friday's five scheduled turf races to the main track. According to forecasts, there was a 60-percent chance of thunderstorms Friday afternoon and an 80-percent chance Friday evening. Saturday was expected to be a dry day.

"There's no doubt that even if he can perform on any surface. I think he will have a better turn of foot on firmer ground than softer ground," said Clement, who noted that should Gio Ponti scratch Saturday he will train up to the Arlington Million on Aug. 13.

Last year, Gio Ponti came into the Man o' War off a loss as the favorite in the Manhattan Stakes. He finished second, beaten one-half length by stablemate Winchester. Last month, Gio Ponti finished third in the Manhattan, 1 1/4 lengths behind loose-on-the-lead longshot winner Mission Approved in a race run over yielding turf.

Gio Ponti gets a 10-pound weight shift from Mission Approved in the Man o' War. In the Manhattan, Gio Ponti spotted Mission Approved seven pounds; Saturday Mission Approved concedes three pounds to Gio Ponti.

Also, European shipper Cape Blanco may have enough speed to not let Mission Approved waltz alone on the lead like he was able to do in the Manhattan.

In last year's Man o' War, Mission Approved for every step but the last one, when Gio Ponti got his head down on the wire first. After not racing for 11 months because of physical issues, Mission Approved came back to lead every step in the Manhattan under Jose Espinoza. Trainer Naipaul Chatterpaul said he has gone relatively easy on Mission Approved in the four weeks since that race.
"The whole idea is not to kill him here in the morning," Chatterpaul said. "You see I worked him once within that four-week span just to keep him happy. He came off an 11-month layoff and ran a big race, you don't want to train too much out of him, you just want to keep him fresh and run."

Cape Blanco, a multiple Group 1 winner in Ireland, set the pace in the Queen Anne Stakes going a mile at Royal Ascot last month before fading to sixth. He stretches out in distance and trainer Aidan O'Brien will put the 4-year-old on Lasix for his North American debut.

"He shipped in well. We couldn't be any happier with him," said assistant Pat Keating, who arrived at Aqueduct from Ireland with Cape Blanco on Wednesday. "Hopefully, with a little bit of luck he'll go well on Saturday."

Boisterous has won three of his last four starts and could loom a threat in his graded stakes debut. Al Khali would appreciate firm turf. Bearpath and Nownownow complete lineup.