03/22/2011 2:40PM

Dubai World Cup: Gio Ponti back in search of signature win

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Mathea Kelley/Dubai Racing Club
Gio Ponti trains Tuesday at Meydan as he prepares for a start in Saturday's $10 million Dubai World Cup.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Do you, racing fan, prefer your equine star to flame brightly for one night in the sky, never to rise again? Or would you rather gaze out into the dark assured of finding your star shining steadily in its usual spot? Cast aside metaphor, and the question is this: How much do you appreciate Gio Ponti?

Refer to a lost era – all right, 2007, but still – to find Gio Ponti’s first start. He has made 23 of them now, 11 races resulting in victory, eight more in second-place finishes. Among the four other performances, two – eighth beaten four lengths, seventh beaten two – came with compromising trouble. That leaves the 2009 Strub, in which Gio Ponti was a close, closing fifth, and the 2010 Dubai World Cup, where he was a slightly troubled fourth, beaten just 1 1/4 lengths.

Since his winning debut, Gio Ponti has started only in stakes, 19 of them graded, 12 of those Grade 1’s. Six of the Grade 1 appearances resulted in victory. Gio Ponti has earned $5,037,800 for owner-breeder Shane Ryan, who races as Castleton Lyons, and had a couple second-place finishes been firsts, he’d be among the leading breadwinners in American racing history.

And yet Gio Ponti’s career lacks a win at the very highest purse levels. The biggest purse he has taken down came in the 2009 Arlington Million. He ran an excellent race in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, looking like a winner at the eighth pole, but then Zenyatta came and did what Zenyatta did. His Breeders’ Cup Mile performance last fall might’ve won that race on occasion, but Goldikova simply was a better horse. Second-best again.

“Over the last two years we’ve been very lucky in racing,” trainer Christophe Clement said. “There have been amazing horses around us. We’ve never missed a dance. That’s why he’s such a nice horse – he has been so consistent.”

But it was not mainly for more consistency that Gio Ponti was brought back to race during his 6-year-old season. It was, in great part, to try and finish first in a race like the $10 million Dubai World Cup, which Gio Ponti will try to do Saturday night.

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Gio Ponti used the Tampa Bay Stakes on Feb. 20 as a prep for his 2010 World Cup start, and at the beginning of 2011, Gio Ponti’s itinerary called for a prep in the Feb. 20 Canadian Turf at Gulfstream. But by mid-February, Clement found himself thinking that a start in the Canadian Turf would be a mistake. He elected not to run, and Gio Ponti enters this World Cup attempt without a start since the Nov. 6 BC Mile.

“We had two options, to run him in World Cup, or, choice Number 2, run him in Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland,” Clement said. “That’s not quite the same kind of challenge. We can always have a safer campaign for the second part of the year.”

Of the 15 previous World Cup winners, only two hadn’t started during the year of their victory: Singspiel had won the Japan Cup the previous Nov. 24 before capturing the 1997 edition, while Almutawakel’s winning performance in 1999 came in his first race since the Prix Dollar on Oct. 3.

“The horse worked okay, but I didn’t think he was working well enough to run him,” Clement said of the decision to pass the Canadian Turf. “It was like he was coming out of hibernation. I thought instead of using it as a prep race to move him up, it might set him back.”

Instead, Clement has done all the prep work in the morning at Payson Park, where Gio Ponti has had an extended string of workouts, all done with other horses to help keep him focused, Clement said.

“I’ve been more aggressive,” Clement said. “He had about eight breezes, and if you look back in the past, all the older horses that are brought back in the winter, I’ve usually never given them more than five or six. To go a mile and a quarter against the best in the world, that’s asking a lot. I’ve never been a black-work type kind of a trainer, and I’m okay with it, he doesn’t need that. I think he’s fit enough to run. I won’t lose any sleep tonight.”

The question in Clement’s mind is not race fitness, but fitness to win over about 1 1/4 miles against such strong competition. And so much of it. A full field of 14 could be entered for the World Cup on Wednesday night, including three horses from the Godolphin contingent – Monterosso, Poet’s Voice, and Prince Bishop – and two from trainer Mike de Kock – Golden Sword and Musir. Others considered probable starters are Fly Down, Twice Over, Buena Vista, Victoire Pisa, Transcend, Gitano Hernando, Cape Blanco, and Richard’s Kid

Gio Ponti finished one place ahead of likely World Cup favorite Twice Over in the 2009 BC Classic, but Twice Over not only has a World Cup prep, it was a winning one over the Meydan surface last month. Two Japanese horses, the mare Buena Vista and the colt Victoire Pisa, almost certainly can contend, if their turf form transfers to the Tapeta surface here. Cape Blanco, another synthetic-track debuter, is good enough to have won the Group 1 Irish Champion late last summer by more than five lengths over Rip Van Winkle and Twice Over. The Godolphin and de Kock horses, with the exception of Poet’s Voice, all have the benefit of a race over the Meydan synthetic track.

Clement, however, could not recite such details concerning the competition, since he no longer devotes intense study to the horses Gio Ponti will be meeting.

“I stopped doing that two years ago with Gio Ponti,” Clement said. “It’s a luxury when you train a horse as good as him.”