07/14/2010 5:28PM

Gio Ponti looks ready to roll in Man o' War

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ELMONT, N.Y. – Trainer Christophe Clement admitted to having some trepidation regarding Gio Ponti entering the Manhattan Handicap on June 5. The horse hadn’t run in 10 weeks, or since finishing fourth in the Dubai World Cup, and missed some training time leading up to the Manhattan, a 1 1/4-mile race at Belmont that had seven Grade 1 winners in its field.

Gio Ponti did everything but win the Manhattan, overcoming some traffic approaching the top of the stretch to make the lead briefly in deep stretch only to get outfinished by stablemate Winchester, losing by a half-length.

With that performance under his belt and a solid three weeks of training since, Gio Ponti, Clement believes, should be ready to return to the winner’s circle when he heads an eight-horse field entered in Saturday’s Grade 1, $600,000 Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park. Gio Ponti, last year’s Eclipse Award winning turf and older male, won the Man o’ War last year – the third of four consecutive Grade 1 victories for this son of Tale of the Cat – and seeks to join With Anticipation (2001-02), Solar Splendor (1991-92) and Majesty’s Prince (1983-84) as repeat winners of this 1 3/8-mile race.

“He’s been training really well,” Clement said. “It’s exciting to be around a horse going into a Grade 1 training and doing the way he’s been.”

The Man o’ War is a very important race for Gio Ponti, who has lost five consecutive races since taking the Arlington Million last August. Sure, Gio Ponti finished second in four of those races – including to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – Clement believes he is in need of a win.

“It’s time to go back and to win,” Clement said.

All signs point to Gio Ponti doing just that. Gio Ponti has excelled at Belmont with 4 wins and 3 seconds from 7 starts. That he has the outside post should not be a hindrance. He won last year’s Man o’ War from post 9 and, as a 3-year-old, took the one-mile, Grade 3 Hill Prince, also at Belmont, from the outside post.

There appears to be ample speed with Mission Approved, Interpatation, and potentially Strike a Deal among those likely to be in a forward position early.

“He’s very versatile, he can come from out of it, he can be stalking,” Clement said of Gio Ponti, who will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez. 'It’s a luxury when you train a horse that good he can adapt.”

Gio Ponti will be meeting many of the same horses he finished ahead of in the Manhattan including Expansion, Grand Couturier, Interpatation and Strike a Deal.

Expansion, trained by Chad Brown, finished one length behind Gio Ponti when third in the Manhattan. Expansion had a bit of a wide trip, but did not encounter any traffic issues as he had in the Grade 2 Elkhorn Stakes in April at Keeneland. Expansion has won at the Man o’ War distance of 1 3/8 miles taking the Red Smith last fall at Aqueduct.

Grand Couturier, a three-time Grade 1 winner, has not won since taking the Grade 2 Bowling Green at this course and distance last September. Grand Couturier had to steady inside the eighth pole of the Manhattan, but trainer Robert Ribuado didn’t think that trouble cost him much.

“It was a confidence-builder that he was running at the end,” Ribaudo said.

Strike a Deal finished 10th in the Manhattan three weeks after going gate to wire to win the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico.

Interpatation upset Gio Ponti in last year’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, a race run over a bog of a turf course after heavy rain hit the area midway through the card. Interpation, who breaks from the rail, figures to be forwardly placed under Jose Lezcano.

Bearpath, who finished second in the Grade 3 Louisville last out, and Midnite Silver, a former claimer who comes off a solid allowance win at 1 1/4 miles last out, complete the field.