06/03/2010 11:00PM

Gio Ponti facing tough bunch in Manhattan


ELMONT, N.Y. - The term "good-betting race" is usually a backhanded compliment about a field with modest to below-average horses with no strong favorite. Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park is a good betting race for all the right reasons.

There are seven Grade 1 winners - including six million-dollar earners - among the 11 horses entered for the Manhattan, and there are some questions surrounding the likely favorite and defending race champion, Gio Ponti. Still, landing on the winner is a precarious proposition.

The Manhattan, run at 1 1/4 miles over Belmont's inner turf, goes as race 10 on the 13-race card and is the next-to-last leg of the pick four and pick six, both of which have guaranteed pools of $1 million.

A year ago, Gio Ponti rallied from last in a 12-horse field under Ramon Dominguez to win the Manhattan by 1 1/2 lengths. Gio Ponti would go on to win the Man o' War and Arlington Million before running second to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He was named champion turf horse and champion older male.

In two starts this year, Gio Ponti was beaten a nose by subsequent Grade 1 winner Karelian in the Tampa Bay Stakes before finishing fourth in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, run over a synthetic surface.

Gio Ponti went two weeks without a published workout, going too slowly one morning to make the work tab and missing another scheduled breeze because of a cough. Gio Ponti drilled a bullet five furlongs in 59.67 seconds on Sunday.

"The horse is well. I got a question mark on his fitness," trainer Christophe Clement said. "He loves Belmont Park. We'll take our shot."

And there are many who will take a shot at him.

Chief among them may be Take the Points, whose most recent appearance at Belmont Park was last October when he upset Courageous Cat to win the Grade 1 Jamaica Handicap for 3-year-olds. Earlier in his 3-year-old season, he won the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington at 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the Manhattan.

This year, he was disqualified from first in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap for questionable interference in the stretch. Most recently, he finished fifth in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free at Meydan.

"I thought he ran a decent race in Dubai. At the top of the stretch he looked like he had a big shot and then he leveled off," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "But he came out of it very well, has held his weight well. We're liking what we've been seeing in the morning."

Alan Goldberg, based at the Colts Neck training center in New Jersey, has won with five consecutive starters at Belmont Park from May 21 through Wednesday. In the Manhattan, he is sending out Strike a Deal, who came off a 10-month layoff to win the Grade 2 Dixie in front-running fashion at Pimlico three weeks ago. Two years ago, Strike a Deal was beaten 1 1/2 lengths when fourth in the Manhattan.

"I think he's really good right now, carrying more flesh than he ever has, happy," said Goldberg, who noted the horse got sick in the winter of 2009 and was never right last year. "It's a tough race, but I think he's going to run well."

Garrett Gomez rides from post 2.

Just as Well finished second to Gio Ponti in last year's Arlington Million and second to Strike a Deal in last month's Dixie. He should be flying late under Kent Desormeaux, who replaces the injured Julien Leparoux.

In a race lacking speed, Jet Propulsion could be a dangerous longshot in here. Marty Wolfson claimed the horse for $50,000 last December and he won the Sunshine Millions Turf in front-running style seven weeks later. Though Jet Propulsion has never run this far, Wolfson said he claimed the horse to run in true distance races.

Court Vision has finished second in three consecutive Grade 1 stakes this year, though he was elevated to first in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. He was beaten 3 1/4 lengths in last year's Manhattan, but as a 3-year-old he won the Hollywood Derby at 1 1/4 miles and also beat Gio Ponti in the Jamaica.

Winchester, Grand Couturier, and Interpatation are the other Grade 1 winners in the field. All three horses would move up considerably if the turf came up soft.

Pinckney Hill and Expansion complete the field.