07/16/2008 11:00PM

Gio Ponti pick to upset Sailor's Cap in Virginia Derby


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When handicappers open the past performances for Saturday's $750,000 Virginia Derby, I doubt many will question the talent of Gio Ponti. A winner of 3 of 4 starts, including the Grade 3 Hill Prince at Belmont, he appears a horse of significant quality.

Whether he can stretch out effectively to 1 1/4 miles for the Virginia Derby - well, that is a more debatable point.

Because Gio Ponti is a son of Tale of the Cat, whose offspring are known for precociousness and speed, my guess is that some horseplayers will balk at the prospect of playing him on the stretchout from the one-mile Hill Prince.

Not this horseplayer. The sire of a horse is just one part of the pedigree.

His dam, Chipeta Springs (by Alydar), was a stakes-placed turf router who has produced a number of distance horses, most notably Fisher Pond, who won the 1 1/2-mile Lawrence Realization in a race transferred from turf to a sloppy track. Fisher Pond, by stamina sire A.P. Indy, also hit the board in the Red Smith and Gallant Fox going marathon distances on turf.

More than anything, the reason to like Gio Ponti in the Virginia Derby is simply his responsiveness to his rider. He relaxes early, not pulling at his jockey, before being called on to make his run leaving the final turn and into the stretch.

That was on display in the June 6 Hill Prince, when he settled off a moderate pace set by runner-up Prussian, and also in the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland last October, when he outkicked eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Nownownow. That day he rated comfortably in fourth behind a dawdling 1:17.33 split for six furlongs before exploding home to win a 1 1/16-mile turf race in 1:45.92, which included a final sixteenth in jaw-dropping 5.58 seconds.

Perfect in three starts over firm courses, Gio Ponti should be able to outfinish morning-line favorite Sailor's Cap in the Virginia Derby - provided the course remains dry.

Sailor's Cap, winner of the Colonial Turf Cup in a driving rainstorm, loves give in the ground, although he did win a maiden race over firm going as a juvenile. He is a formidable opponent.

Euphony in DeBartolo Oaks

Another appealing wagering opportunity on turf presents itself in the $50,000 Marie P. DeBartolo Oaks at Louisiana Downs, a race in which Euphony appears set to return to winning form.

Run down by Love to Tell when second in the Little Treasure Stakes earlier in the Louisiana Downs meet, Euphony can be excused for that loss. She got caught between horses in a four-horse early duel, and understandably grew tired. But while the other front-runners retreated to the rear-half of the field in the stretch, she kept battling to the wire to finish three lengths clear of the third-place finisher.

Euphony is drawn outside the other speed in the DeBartolo Oaks, and jockey Cliff Berry should be able to give her a favorable stalking/pressing trip from a length or two off the pace. If that happens, she would appear likely to run back to the promise she showed in winning the Instant Racing Stakes on dirt at Oaklawn Park in April.

Ride Em Cowgirl in Nicole's Dream

Horseplayers looking for a stakes race with depth should take a glance at the $50,000 Nicole's Dream Stakes at Arlington. A five-furlong turf dash, it has 12 fillies and mares in the body of the race, and two more are on the also-eligible list.

My choice is Ride Em Cowgirl, who returns to her Arlington Park base after rallying for second in the Buckland Stakes at Colonial Downs June 21 in a race that was even better than it appears in the past performances.

Off a step slowly and shuffled back early, she found herself having to come from farther behind than usual, but showed heart to get up in the closing strides for the runner-up spot. She was no match for the victorious Smart and Fancy, but that filly is an excellent turf sprinter, which she illustrated in coming right back and winning the Lighthearted Stakes at Delaware Park July 13.

Ride Em Cowgirl faces a good field in the Nicole's Dream Stakes, led by morning-line favorite Bucky's Prayer, a winner of two straight.

Bucky's Prayer gives her all wherever she runs. She has won stakes at Great Lakes, Presque Isle, and Tampa Bay, but isn't merely a "small track" mare. Two years ago she ran second in turf stakes at Arlington and Saratoga, and this April she won a tough optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park.