08/09/2009 12:00AM

Gio Ponti shines in Million win

Four-Footed Fotos
Gio Ponti wins Saturday's Arlington Million by 1 1/4 lengths under jockey Ramon Dominguez.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - There must be a ceiling to Gio Ponti's ability somewhere up there. But after his scintillating 1 1/4-length victory in the on Saturday at Arlington Park, it's hard say just where that ceiling sits.

"There's no telling how good he is," jockey Ramon Dominguez said.

Well, let us endeavor to enumerate the nuts and bolts of what certainly is goodness, if not greatness. Gio Ponti ($5) won his fourth Grade 1 in a row Saturday. He now has won nine of 14 starts, with earnings over $2 million. His recent Grade 1 streak encompasses races as short as one mile and as long as 11 furlongs, at venues as far apart as California and New York. Gio Ponti wins whether the turf is wet, dry, somewhere in between, or not even turf. Since he won over Santa Anita synthetic last winter, his connections are turning over the possibility of the Breeders' Cup Classic. His win in the Million, a Breeders' Cup Win and You're In race, earned him a guaranteed berth in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita on Nov. 7.

His victory in the Million, which came before a crowd of 28,141 on a hot, steamy afternoon, unfolded in a fashion entirely different from Gio Ponti's recent triumphs in New York. There, he sat near the back of the pack and rallied wide. Saturday, Dominguez let Gio Ponti stay closer to the leaders, and he sealed the deal with a flashy run before the quarter pole, gearing down once clear before kicking on again when Just as Well and Stotsfold came closer inside the final 200 yards.

"I'm a lucky guy," said Christophe Clement, who, like Dominguez, won his first Million. "This is a star."

Clement frets over minutiae, but in the paddock before the Million, he could not have looked looser. Same for Gio Ponti. Clement said Gio Ponti used to get worked up as post time approached, but he did not turn a hair in 90-degree heat. Dominguez, having paid attention to earlier grass races, worried that deep outside closers were disadvantaged Saturday. Clement simply told Dominguez to ride his race.

That race began with a slight stumble, and by the time Gio Ponti settled in, Presious Passion was well clear. The front-running winner of the United Nations Stakes had an eight-length lead at the first call, but his opening quarter-mile was 23.88 seconds, highly taxing. Presious Passion went 48.44 for the half, and 1:14.23, but his lead rapidly diminished on the far turn.

"He didn't like the soft turf," jockey Elvis Trujillo said.

Gio Ponti, meanwhile, stayed glued to the fence, racing in sixth at the head of the backstretch, but creeping to fourth before the far turn. Past the three-furlong pole, Dominguez said 'go,' and in a half-furlong, Gio Ponti had opened several lengths. At the top of the stretch it seemed Gio Ponti would win by 10, but once clear, Gio Ponti began idling.

"I got a little worried after he made that bold move," Dominguez said.

On the inside was Stotsfold, and closing wide was Just as Well, but they never got within a length of Gio Ponti, who held clear the closers, and stopped the timer in 2:04.19, the third-slowest Million, but a time 1.21 seconds faster than Take the Points ran in the Secretariat.

Just as Well, last early at odds of 19-1, rallied well for second in his Grade 1 debut.

"That was more than I could have expected, really," said owner-trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Six-year-old Stotsfold was more lightly regarded than the other two Europeans in the race, but missed second by a head. Cima de Triomphe finished fourth, six lengths behind him, and Gloria de Campeao beat only Presious Passion.

Second-choice Einstein was fifth, Mr. Sidney sixth. Jockey Julien Leparoux said Einstein had no response when asked for run.

Gio Ponti has nothing but run, and has proved a gold mine for owner Castleton Lyons, whose principal, an Irishman named Shane Ryan, said he would donate 5 percent of his Million earnings to the Disabled Jockeys Fund. Ryan twice entered Gio Ponti in sales as a young horse, but he did not meet his reserve as a yearling, and could not be sold as a 2-year-old because of a splint injury.

And that is a sale Ryan surely is glad he did not make.