08/14/2009 12:00AM

Opportunity for Gio Ponti to step out of the box

Four-Footed Fotos
Gio Ponti could show just how good he really is by racing in Europe.

NEW YORK - A note of caution is in order before there is any more hyperbole concerning the recent achievements of Gio Ponti. That he is the best turf horse in America there can be no doubt, but if he is just 1 1/4 lengths in front of Britain's three-time Group 3 winner Stotsfold, he is not yet in the same league as Europe's best turf performers.

In winning his fourth straight Grade 1 turf race in the Arlington Million on Saturday, Gio Ponti revealed a versatility rarely seen in America. A winner at the highest level at a mile, 1 1/4 miles, and 1 3/8 miles, the Tale of the Cat 4-year-old has won on firm, good, and yielding, and in the East, the West, and the Midwest. What more can one ask of a horse?

Quite a bit these days. There is that place across the ocean called Europe where a large majority of the world's best turf runners are trained. Having beaten all of the best American grass horses, what is there to be gained by Gio Ponti spending the rest of the summer and early autumn at home?

His trainer, Christophe Clement, has all but nixed the idea of sending him to Longchamp for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. That is wise thinking, especially as Gio Ponti has never tried 1 1/2 miles. But the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on Sept. 5 is at Gio Ponti's favorite distance of 1 1/4 miles. It also comes four weeks after the Million and would get him back to America two months before the Breeders' Cup, perhaps even in time for the Turf Classic on Oct. 3.

It is long past time for good American horses to try Europeans on their own terms. Wesley Ward proved that relatively untried 2-year-olds could could beat their European peers at Royal Ascot. If Gio Ponti really wants to establish his worth, the Irish Champion is the way to go. Otherwise he runs the risk, as do all horses that never leave their home countries, of being nothing more than a provincial champion. Gio Ponti deserves to take his chance at Leopardstown, where his true value could be determined against Europe's best.

The latest Racing Post Ratings on turf leave Gio Ponti out of the top 10, further evidence that he still has something to prove. He received an RPR of 122 for his Arlington Million victory, leaving him 11 pounds behind 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, and Eclipse Stakes winner Sea the Stars, 5 pounds adrift of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Conduit, and 4 pounds behind Irish Derby winner Fame and Glory.

It should be noted that the RPR top 10 omits all French horses. This is an inherent weakness with British rating systems, be it the Racing Post, Timeform, or the British dominated World Thoroughbred Rankings, all of which have a built-in bias against the French. That Goldikova's RPR of 124 is 2 pounds below England's best miler Paco Boy is incomprehensible. Further illustrating the bias, the Eric Libaud-trained Vision d'Etat won the Prince of Wales's Stakes by a half-length, but at 124 his RPR is a pound lower than Tartan Bearer, the British-trained runner-up in that race.

Paco Boy will avoid Goldikova for the rest of the year, skipping Sunday's Prix Jacques le Marois in favor of a freshening for a defense of his seven-furlong Prix de la Foret title on Oct. 3. This is unusual in Europe, where almost every Group 1 race features at least two or three of the very highest rated horses in their respective divisions. For example, Sea the Stars has already met and beaten Rip Van Winkle three times this season and Fame and Glory once. He also ran against older horses in the Eclipse Stakes on July 4 when he beat Conduit.

The European racing schedule reflects the mindset of most European horsemen in that it virtually requires good 3-year-olds to challenge older horses from early July onward. With a plethora of valuable races for 3-year-olds in this country, most American horses are encouraged to avoid their elders until October. The most glaring example of this mis-scheduling occurred in New York a few years ago when the Travers was put back a week and the Woodward put forward a week. Instead of three or four weeks separating the two races, there was suddenly only a single week between them, making it all but impossible for the best 3-year-olds to face their elders in the Woodward, a race that hasn't been won by a 3-year-old since Holy Bull in 1994. Sadly, only one 3-year-old has even run in the Woodward since 1999, and that was the Aidan O'Brien-trained Hold That Tiger, the runner-up to Mineshaft in 2003.

The game of dodgems in America has taken on epidemic proportions this year with Rachel Alexandra (RPR 127) and Zenyatta (RPR 124) avoiding each other like the plague. A country as big as America is always going to have some problems persuading East to meet West, but we exacerbated them with the introduction of synthetic surfaces at so many important tracks. The connections of dirt-loving Rachel Alexandra are to be congratulated for running her against 3-year-old males, but neither they nor her counterparts in the synthetic-partial Zenyatta camp are doing racing any favors by avoiding the one meeting the world most desires.