06/09/2011 10:20AM

Manhattan Handicap: Prince Will I Am at his best in New York

Barbara D. Livingston
Prince Will I Am, with trainer Michelle Nihei up, trains at Belmont Park on Thursday morning.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Trainer Michelle Nihei believes Prince Will I Am loves performing on the big stage in New York. As far as turf races go on this circuit, few races, if any, are bigger than Saturday’s Grade 1, $400,000 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park.

Prince Will I Am figures to be the second choice behind the multiple Eclipse Award champion and 2009 Manhattan winner Gio Ponti in the Manhattan, one of five undercard events on the 13-race Belmont Stakes Day program.

In New York, Prince Will I Am has two wins and a third from three starts. His biggest career victory came in last fall’s Grade 1 Jamaica for 3-year-olds, a race he won by 1 1/4 lengths at odds of 9-1.

“That’s obviously very much a part of why we’re here,” Nihei, a former assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher, said this week. “I know he does really well in New York in a larger sense; he tends not to just run well, he eats well, he trains well, he comes out of all of his works well. Everything about New York is something this horse loves.”

Perhaps that’s why Nihei shipped Prince Will I Am shortly after his fifth-place finish in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs. Prince Will I Am has breezed twice over Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track.

Prince Will I Am began the year with two graded victories at Gulfstream, before running third in the Pan American. On Derby Day, Prince Will I Am was the 3-1 favorite in the 13-horse Turf Classic but couldn’t catch a loose-on-the-lead Get Stormy, rallying from next-to-last to get fifth.

“We broke sharp and took back and shouldn’t have,” Nihei said. “There wasn’t any speed, we got trapped in the back, yet we still made up a huge amount of ground. There was no chance he was going to gain on a horse that had that much of a head start.”

There does appear to be ample speed in this Manhattan, with Straight Story, who has four wins and four seconds from eight starts at Belmont, and Mission Approved, who hasn’t been out since coming within a neck of Gio Ponti when he attempted to steal last July’s Man o’ War.

By the end of last year, trainer Christophe Clement and owner Shane Ryan of Castleton Lyons had determined that as well as Gio Ponti had run at long distances on the turf, his forte might be as a miler. He displayed an awesome of turn of foot winning the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland and ran a more-than-credible second to Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, that being Goldikova’s third straight victory in that race.

But Clement feels Gio Ponti is versatile enough to handle the 1 1/4 miles of the Manhattan, a race he won in 2009 and finished second in last year, despite a traffic-filled trip.

“He’s won a Grade 1 from a mile to a mile and three-eighths,” Clement said. “The one thing at a mile is you get the pace. With the pace, he’s got a great turn of foot. Maybe his turn of foot means more at a mile because of the pace, but I mean he’s been successful going further.”

Gio Ponti is making his first start since finishing fifth, beaten less than two lengths in the Dubai World Cup in March. Clement has been extremely pleased with the 6-year-old’s preparation, including a recent work in which he got his last quarter in 22.30 seconds.

Windward Islands is somewhat intriguing. Infirmities have limited this 7-year-old gelding to 20 career starts, but he did win the Grade 2 Nijinksky at Woodbine last summer and, most recently, was third in the Elkhorn at Keeneland. That race was at 1 1/2 miles and was the gelding’s first start in seven months.

“We had to stop on him last year – minor stuff – it was a shame because he was doing pretty well,” trainer Mark Frostad said. “He’s in good order right now.”

Al Khali is only 2 for his last 10, but both of those wins have come at Belmont, including last September’s Grade 2 Bowling Green Handicap in which he beat Winchester, last year’s Manhattan winner.

In addition to sending Master of Hounds here from Ireland for the Belmont, trainer Aidan O;Brien has shipped in Viscount Nelson for the Manhattan. He is coming off a listed stakes win eight days ago at The Curragh.

Bold Hawk, Wishful Tomcat, and Bim Bam complete the field.