01/18/2010 12:00AM

Gio Ponti showed his versatility

Barbara D. Livingston
Gio Ponti was named champion turf male and is a finalist in the older male division.

Gio Ponti, the winner of the Eclipse Award for champion male turf horse and champion older male, was named for the noted Italian designer (1891-1979) whose influence was widely felt in the worlds of architecture and furniture. In 2009, Gio Ponti fashioned a brilliant campaign that included four consecutive Grade 1 victories, as well as a second-place finish in the richest race in the country, the Breeders' Cup Classic. Like his namesake, Gio Ponti was multi-talented. This was no one-trick pony.

Gio Ponti won at distances ranging from one mile to 1 3/8 miles, was second going 1 1/2 miles, and ran powerful races on both turf and synthetic surfaces.

He made his first two starts of the year at Santa Anita. After finishing fifth following a wide trip in the Strub Stakes on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface, Gio Ponti reeled off four straight wins in Grade 1 grass races at three different tracks in three different time zones.

Gio Ponti rallied powerfully to win the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita, then was given a three-month freshening before embarking on an ambitious summer schedule. He won the Manhattan Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard, stretched out to 11 furlongs to capture the Man o' War at Belmont, then utilized his brilliant turn of foot to put away an international field in the Arlington Million.

"He is a great horse," jockey Ramon Dominguez said after the Million. "He just does everything so easy. He stumbled a little bit out of the gate and I thought it would compromise my chances, but right away he came back up and was on the bridle, taking me every step of the way. He's a pleasure to ride."

After a brief vacation to prepare for the fall, Gio Ponti finished second to the longshot Interpatation over a very soft course in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at rainy Belmont Park. The course conditions were a factor, but so was the distance, 1 1/2 miles likely being beyond Gio Ponti's ideal.

Christophe Clement, who trains Gio Ponti, believes that Gio Ponti is at his absolute best going 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles. Since there are no open Breeders' Cup grass races at those distances, the decision was made to put Gio Ponti back on the main track for the Classic at 1 1/4 miles.

It was a wise move. Gio Ponti ran one of the best races of his career. After lagging back early, he closed quickly and took the lead at midstretch. But the great mare Zenyatta caught him in the final yards. Gio Ponti had to settle for second, beaten by one length. It was the 13th time in 16 career starts that Gio Ponti had finished either first or second.

Gio Ponti is owned by the Castleton Lyons operation of Shane Ryan, the son of the late Irish businessman Dr. Tony Ryan. Now age 5, he is remaining in training this year. Gio Ponti, currently at Santa Anita, is being aimed at the March 27 Dubai World Cup, which this year will be run on a synthetic surface, Tapeta, for the first time.

"I have to decide what prep race to use," Clement said in late December. "He will run in either the San Antonio at Santa Anita, or the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap."

One race is on synthetic, the other on turf. For a renaissance horse like Gio Ponti, either works.