08/03/2009 11:00PM

Clement sheds turf-filly label

Barbara D. Livingston
A good portion of trainer Christophe Clement's success has come with turf fillies, but his 4-year-old colt Gio Ponti is the morning-line favorite in Saturday's Arlington Million.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Historically, Christophe Clement has been more of a ladies' man.

He has won the last two editions of the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes, with Mauralakana last year and with Royal Highness in 2007, and Clement is the only three-time winner of the Beverly D. Most of the top horses to have passed through his barn during an 18-year training career have been fillies that race on grass, horses like his other Beverly D. winner, England's Legend, and Relaxed Gesture.

But this year, Clement has no starter for the Beverly D. This year, Clement has the horse to beat in the Arlington Million, Gio Ponti, a 4-year-old colt who has risen to the top of the national turf ranks with three straight Grade 1 victories. Also bound for Arlington is another colt, 3-year-old Laureate Conductor, an improving horse who has a decent chance in the Secretariat Stakes.

"Early on, I got labeled a turf-filly trainer," Clement said, reached by phone this week in New York. "Nobody thought I could train a colt. But one time, Bill Mott said to me, 'You're better to be labeled something than nothing.' "

Let us, at this point, merely label Clement a full-blown success. Besides Gio Ponti, the morning-line favorite in a nine-horse Million field here Saturday, Clement also can look down his shed row and spy Funny Moon, a dirt filly who just won the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks; Carribean Sunset and Rutherienne, both of whom were right behind Forever Together in the Diana Handicap last week; and In Summation, a graded stakes class sprinter on synthetic surfaces. Clement has a good number of 2-year-olds assembled in New York, and his operation has expanded considerably since it began as a six-horse string in 1991.

"I'm a good-sized stable now," Clement said.

Clement, 43, passed 1,000 career winners (798 of which have come on turf) late last year, and has won a somewhat remarkable 135 graded grass stakes. Consider it all a blow for the power of pedigree. Clement's father, Miguel, was a French trainer, and after his untimely death in 1978, Christophe was guided into a racing career by the likes of Alec Head and Francois Boutin. Clement, who holds a French degree in economics and is married with two children, came to the United States in the mid-1980s and worked for Taylor Made Farm and Shug McGaughey, but served his longest apprenticeship in England, working four years for Luca Cumani, who also has a horse, Cima de Triomphe, for this year's Million.

When he chose to go out on his own in 1991, Clement spurned Europe for New York. His older brother Nicolas had just won the Arc de Triomphe with Saumarez in 1990, gaining a foothold with help from clients of his father.

"I didn't think France was big enough for two brothers," Clement said, "and my brother had started to train a bit before me. But it was a blessing in disguise, because it put me in a position to get better horses quicker."

So, here came the young Frenchman, without a day's experience as an assistant trainer in the United States, starting out in New York, as tough a place as anywhere for a trainer to stick.

"I was 25 years old and didn't know any better," Clement said with a laugh. "I thought I owned the world."

It's not hyperbole to say Clement has moved forward from Day 1. He won with his first runner, and within months had captured two Grade 2 races.

"I was a lucky guy to have good horses right away," Clement said.

Lucky, but clearly talented, too.

"He is a very good horseman," said Hall of Fame trainer Mott, who is Clement's neighbor on the Saratoga backstretch. "He's very observant, covers all the details. He watches his horses closely, and pretty much every aspect of it he's on top of. He can be a pain in the [neck] to be around, because he wants to know everybody's business as much as his own."

As for Gio Ponti, Clement first laid eyes upon him at a Florida 2-year-old in training sale in winter 2007. The colt is the property of Castleton Lyons, which is owned by the Estate of Dr. Tony Ryan, who formed two successful Irish airlines before his death in 2007. Ryan's son, Shane, now is the president of Castleton Lyons and the owner of Kilboy Stud, which bred Gio Ponti, the product of a mating between Tale of the Cat and the mare Chipeta Springs. Gio Ponti was entered in three different sales - one as a yearling and two as a 2-year-old - but never sold.

"I rather liked him when I first saw him," Clement said. "But he had a large splint and was sore on it and he could not sell."

And that is turning out to be one very fortuitous splint problem. Gio Ponti came into Clement's barn during summer 2007 and won his career debut by open lengths in a September turf sprint at Belmont Park. He was much the best in the Bourbon Stakes second time out and had no chance with a nightmare trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in his 2-year-old finale.

At 3, Gio Ponti won three times and twice was second from six starts, and in the sixth race he had no chance when boxed in during the Hollywood Derby. He has been even better in 2009. In February, he finished a close fifth while giving weight and racing wide on a synthetic track in the Strub Stakes, but Gio Ponti quickly rebounded to win the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile a month later. That was the end of a four-start fall-winter California adventure, at which point Clement freshened the colt for a summer grass campaign. Gio Ponti came from last of 12 to easily win the Grade 1 Manhattan over 1 1/4 miles on yielding turf in June, and on July 11 he was clearly best rallying wide in the 1 3/8-mile, Grade 1 Man o' War, which was contested over a very firm course.

"He's a very straightforward horse in the morning," said Clement, who ranks Gio Ponti among the best horses he has trained. "I suppose he's got to be a pretty good horse to win at a mile, and a mile and three-eighths. Really, I'm not even sure what his best trip is."

Given all that Clement so quickly figured out about training American racehorses, expect him to get a handle on that before long, too.