02/20/2010 12:00AM

Karelian bests Gio Ponti by a nose

Tom Cooley
Although Gio Ponti lost a head bob to Karelian, foreground, in the Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup, the race should set Gio Ponti up well for the Dubai World Cup, according to trainer Christophe Clement.

Gio Ponti's return to the races didn't go quite as planned Saturday as Karelian got loose on an easy lead under Rosemary Homeister and was able to hold off the multiple Eclipse Award champion Gio Ponti by a nose in the at Tampa Bay Downs.

Gio Ponti, the turf and older male champion of 2009, was making his first start since finishing second to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November. His connections - trainer Christophe Clement and owner Shane Thomas Ryan - were using this race as a prep for the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan on March 27.

"It was really just what he needed, a good strong race," Clement said. "This should set him up just right."

Karelian, an 8-year-old gelded son of Bertrando won for the ninth time in 20 starts. He hadn't run since finishing eighth as the favorite in the Grade 3 River City Handicap at Churchill Downs last Nov. 27.

"That was pretty special, he's like the farm pet, we've had him so long," said Rusty Arnold, who trains Karelian for Green Lantern Stables.

Karelian was able to secure a clear lead and set moderate fractions of 25.15 seconds, 49.61, and 1:14.15 for the first six furlongs. Ramon Dominguez had Gio Ponti in second position about two lengths off the early pace - the horse usually does his best running from further back than that - before trying to engage Karelian turning for home. Karelian had something left in the tank for the stretch drive and basically won a head bob over Gio Ponti. Karleian covered the 1 1/16 miles over firm turf in 1:42.61 and returned $12.80.

The stewards immediately put up the inquiry sign, and Dominguez lodged an objection against Homeister for interference, but the stewards allowed the result to stand.

"There was no contact, but she kept drifting out and it was such a short margin," Dominguez said on why he claimed foul. "I could see it going either way."

Gio Ponti reared up in the starting gate before the start of the race, unseating Dominguez, but the jockey didn't think that had a bearing on the outcome of the race. Overall, Dominguez said he was pleased with Gio Ponti's performance and thinks the effort should set him up well for Dubai.

"Looking at the race without looking at what he's done or who he is, I thought he ran great," Dominguez said. "The horse in front was walking. I'm happy, especially after talking to Chris; he

didn't seem upset the way he ran. He's not going to lose any sleep over it."

While Gio Ponti is headed for Dubai, Karelian will make his next start in the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland in early April, Arnold said.