07/10/2009 11:00PM

Gio Ponti looks at top of his game


ELMONT, N.Y. - It was presented to trainer Christophe Clement earlier this week that a victory by Gio Ponti in Saturday's Grade 1 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park would put his horse at the top of the turf division.

Clement, not one for braggadocio or hyperbole, paused and chose his words carefully.

"I don't want to sound pretentious," Clement said, "but I think he is at the top of the division right now."

With two Grade 1 victories on two coasts at varying distances, it's hard to argue the point. But Gio Ponti can remove any doubt Saturday when he faces eight rivals - including five other Grade 1 winners -in the Man o' War, carded for 1 3/8 miles over Belmont's inner turf. The Man o' War goes as race 7 (4:12 p.m. Eastern post) and is the first leg of a pick four with a guaranteed $350,000 pool.

Gio Ponti will break from the outside post in the nine-horse field, while carrying top weight of 123 pounds along with Midships and the European shipper Quijano. That trio will be spotting three to seven pounds to the rest of the field.

Gio Ponti enters the Man o' War off victories in the Frank Kilroe going a mile at Santa Anita and the Manhattan going 1 1/4 mile at Belmont, where he is 3 for 4 lifetime. He has handled firm ground and yielding turf. He has done it with a devastating late run that has proven effective regardless of pace. His ability to relax and kick gives Clement confidence Gio Ponti can handle the 11 furlongs of the Man o' War.

"I'll be surprised if he does not stay," Clement said.

The California shipper Midships has won three consecutive graded stakes for trainer Bobby Frankel, including the Grade 1 Charlie Whittingham Handicap in his last start. Though he raced in a stalking position that day, his two previous victories came in front-running fashion, and he looms the primary speed in the Man o' War under Victor Espinoza.

Musketier, who won the Grade 2 Singspiel at Woodbine three weeks ago, and Quijano, who won a Group 1 in Italy last month, could apply early pressure.

Marsh Side, second to Gio Ponti in the Manhattan, has shipped back from Southern California for trainer Neil Drysdale and should appreciate the added ground, though Drysdale feels the horse prefers 1 1/2 miles.

Grand Couturier and Dancing Forever will make their second starts of the year. Both had targeted last month's Manhattan, but missed that race because of interrupted training schedules caused by bad weather. Grand Couturier, who has won the last two editions of the Sword Dancer, finished fifth in the Monmouth Stakes on June 13, his first start since running 11th in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Trainer Robert Ribaudo believes Grand Couturier will need one more race to be at his best.

"We still feel confident he'll come running at the end," Ribaudo said.

Shug McGaughey, the trainer of Dancing Forever, thinks his horse is ready to fire a big race. Dancing Forever finished third in an allowance race on May 31, and McGaughey believes he has moved forward since the race.

"I think he's trained better and sounder now than I've ever seen him go," McGaughey said.

Chinchon and Interpatation complete the field.

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