08/19/2010 3:45PM

Gio Ponti can prove he's his same old self with Million victory

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Gio Ponti wins the Man o' War by a neck.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Thirty-three seconds.

That is about how long it took Gio Ponti to complete the final three furlongs of the Man o’ War Stakes on July 10, and that is about as fast as the species equus ferus caballus can run.

But was Gio Ponti, who will be favored to win the 28th Arlington Million here Saturday, feted for this feat? He was not. That monster late surge propelled Gio Ponti past pacesetting Mission Approved at the Man o’ War finish, but the margin of victory was only a neck, and Mission Approved was a huge longshot, defeated in his previous start while racing for a $35,000 claiming price. To trainer Christophe Clement, at least, knocking Gio Ponti for the margin of victory and lackluster competition is missing the forest for the trees.

“It was an amazing race. They went so slow, it took an amazing horse to win from where he was,” Clement said.

Gio Ponti’s near-defeat at odds of 2-5 in the Man o’ War, however, plays into a wider narrative, one suggesting that the Gio Ponti of 2010 is not quite the Gio Ponti of 2009, the four-time Grade 1 winner who finished second to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, earning double Eclipse awards in the turf and older male divisions. This, too, strikes a false note to Clement’s ear.

“Without a doubt he is similar to last year,” said Clement. “What he has lacked is a little bit of racing luck.”

If Clement is right, and if luck alights late Saturday afternoon, Gio Ponti will become the first horse ever to win back-to-back editions of the Grade 1 Million. This year’s Million goes as race 10 (post time 5:14 Central) on a 12-race card that begins at 12:15 p.m. Eleven races are carded for turf, including four graded stakes, and Arlington will utilize two turf lanes on Saturday, with the graded races run over the outer loop.

A $1 pick four links the graded stakes, beginning with the Stars and Stripes in race 7, and a $300,000-guaranteed pick three covers the three Grade 1’s starting in race 8, the Secretariat, moving through the Beverly D., and landing on the Million. The proceedings will be televised nationally by HRTV, which has a crew on hand, and locally on Comcast Sportsnet Chicago. As part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series, the Million winner receives a guaranteed starting berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.

Gio Ponti won the 2009 Million over turf rated good, and might encounter similar conditions Saturday. The Arlington turf was good to firm Thursday, but there’s a 50 percent chance of showers Friday night, and a 30 percent chance of rain Saturday.

Gio Ponti failed to win between last year’s Million and the Man o’ War, but Clement said “it would be very unfair to the horse not to be confident in him” approaching Saturday’s race. Gio Ponti lost the Tampa Bay Stakes to Karelian in February, but Karelian pushed him out in the stretch that day and went on to win the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark at Keeneland. Gio Ponti finished fourth in the Dubai World Cup, but was beaten just 1 1/4 lengths, and, by Clement’s reckoning, “was eight or nine wide at the quarter pole.” In the Manhattan, his first post-Dubai start, Gio Ponti got stuck in traffic, rallying for second behind his stablemate, Winchester. And finally came the Man o’ War, where the three-quarters split, 1:18, could have been timed with a sundial.

“You become a little bit cocky when you train a horse as good as him,” said Clement, who trains Gio Ponti for the Castleton Lyons stable of Shane Ryan.

John Gosden, 0 for 7 in the Million, has sent over two horses from England, 6-year-old Tazeez and 4-year-old Debussy. Tazeez “is a pretty known quantity,” Gosden said, and though Tazeez has gone winless in four 2010 starts, his form is strong enough to merit consideration. Tazeez faded a bit racing 12 furlongs July 8 in a Group 2 at Newmarket, but at the Million’s 10-furlong trip he was a closer third to high-class Byword and Twice Over two starts ago. Tazeez drew wide, but appears to have tactical speed.

On paper, Debussy looks like the weaker of the Gosdens, but he has a strong record on left-handed courses like those used in the United States, and has won half his six starts at 10 furlongs.

“He’ll be happier at Arlington,” Gosden said. “That course should suit him well.”

Summit Surge exits a win over 1 5/16 miles in the Group 2 York Stakes on July 24, the 6-year-old’s first try beyond one mile.

“The way he was racing, the way he was working, I thought it was worth stepping up in distance,” said Luca Cumani, who took over Summit Surge’s training early this year. Summit Surge lacks speed and is drawn on the far outside, and is likely to be far back in the early going.

Rahystrada won the Arlington Handicap last month by a half-length over Just as Well, but Just as Well is the more proven commodity, and rallied for second behind Gio Ponti in the 2009 Million. Just as Well has gone winless in more than a year, however. Marsh Side, drawn on the rail with positional speed Saturday, beat Just as Well by a half-length last fall in the Northern Dancer at Woodbine, but that race was at 1 1/2 miles. He is cross-entered in Sunday’s Grade 2 sky Classic at Woodbine.

Tajaaweed closed from 11th to third in the Arlington Handicap, but could be more prominently placed on Saturday. Quite a Handful will be the longest price in the Million, and could set the early pace.

General Quarters won the Grade 1 Turf Classic on Derby Day, but ran poorly last out in the Arlington Handicap.