07/08/2010 12:00AM

Gio Ponti looks for his winning touch

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With most of the focus on the two queens of racing − Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra − little attention has been paid this year to the reigning king of the turf, Gio Ponti.

For Gio Ponti's connections, that may be a good thing. After winning champion turf horse and champion older male honors in 2009, Gio Ponti is winless in three starts in 2010. He has lost five consecutive races since capturing , which had been his fourth consecutive Grade 1 victory. But that was 11 months ago.

Saturday, in the Grade 1, $600,000 Man o' War at Belmont Park, Gio Ponti will look to end that losing streak. His trainer, Christophe Clement, is adamant about returning to the winner's circle.

"It's time for him to go back to winning races," said Clement, who calls Gio Ponti the best horse he has ever trained.

While Clement said he believes Gio Ponti is every bit as good as he was a year ago, Gio Ponti has not been as lucky. In fact, a dissection of his last five races provides Clement and owner Shane Ryan of Castleton Lyons with plenty of excuses.

Eight weeks after his Arlington Million victory, on Oct. 3, Gio Ponti was the 4-5 favorite in the . But heavy rain fell on Belmont Park midway through the card, turning the turf course into green mud. Gio Ponti overtook the pacesetting Interpatation in midstretch, but Interpatation, after running a mile in 1:48.72, came back on Gio Ponti to win by 1 3/4 lengths.

With the Breeders' Cup being run on a synthetic surface last year, Gio Ponti ran in rather than the Turf. After splitting horses to strike the front in midstretch, Gio Ponti could not hold off the locomotive that was Zenyatta, losing by one length.

That race showed Gio Ponti could handle a synthetic surface in the highest company, so naturally, the $10 million Dubai World Cup − run over the Tapeta surface at newly opened Meydan − became all the incentive Ryan needed to keep Gio Ponti in training this year.

was on the docket first. After acting up in the paddock and being fractious at the gate, Gio Ponti lost a nose decision to Karelian, who carried Gio Ponti out several paths in the stretch. Karelian came back to win the Grade 1 Maker's Mark at Keeneland.

Meanwhile, Gio Ponti kept his engagement in Dubai, where he raced in between horses for a good part of the race before having to rally eight wide in the stretch while getting beat only 1 1/4 lengths.

"He only got beat a length and a quarter in the richest race in the world," Clement said. "It was an unbelievable trip he had."

The trip from America to Dubai can be hard to overcome for some horses. Gio Ponti, who actually returned to south Florida for a month following Dubai, did not have a smooth couple of weeks leading up to on June 5. There was a workout too slow to actually be published. Then there was a missed workout because of a cough.

Still, Clement was confident his charge would run well in the Manhattan, and run well Gio Ponti did, steadying behind horses around the far turn, altering course, and splitting horses in the stretch, only to be run down by stablemate Winchester.

"I know he got beat the other day, but coming back from Dubai short of work, I was delighted with his race," Clement said. "He looked like a winner until about 20 yards from the wire."

With that race under his belt and a couple of subsequent workouts, Gio Ponti should be sitting on a big race in the Man o' War, Clement said. Gio Ponti will face seven challengers, including Expansion, Grand Couturier, Interpatation, and Strike a Deal, all of whom finished behind him in the Manhattan.

A victory in the Man o' War would be Gio Ponti's eighth graded stakes win and push his career earnings over $4 million.

Following the Man o' War, Clement and Ryan will have plenty to discuss for the late summer and fall. Clement said that another run at the Arlington Million in late August is enticing but that the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on a synthetic surface is, too.

"The more Grade 1's he wins, the more he can establish he's a top-class horse, the better," Clement said. "And I still think, to me, over a mile and a quarter, he's the best older horse at the moment."

That could make for an interesting fall. While Clement believes last year's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic was inconclusive regarding Gio Ponti's ability at 1 1/2 miles, he opened the door to running in the Breeders' Cup Classic on dirt at 1 1/4 miles. Gio Ponti has never run on dirt in his previous 19 starts.

"If you're to try the dirt, I think you might as well try it in the Breeders' Cup Classic," Clement said. "That would be more up to the owner than me. At the moment, I need to go back on a winning streak. This is a champion turf horse, an Eclipse Award winner of last year. Let's go back to that position first, and then we'll go from there."