08/30/2008 11:00PM

Sky Cape runs into Gio Ponti

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Sky Cape has reeled off three consecutive stakes wins since April, fooling trainer Kristin Mulhall along the way. She once thought he was just a sprinter, but has changed her mind as Sky Cape has shown consistent improvement in longer turf races.

Sky Cape won his second turf route in the Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 9, and will try for his fourth straight stakes win in Sunday's $350,000 Del Mar Derby. The race distance of 1 1/8 miles on turf is not a concern to Mulhall. The competition is.

Sky Cape must beat Gio Ponti, widely regarded as the top 3-year-old turf male in the nation. Gio Ponti will be favored on the basis of his wins this year in the Grade 3 Hill Prince Stakes at Belmont Park in June and the Grade 2 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs last month.

While Gio Ponti has nearly impeccable credentials, Sky Cape has a home-course advantage.

In the La Jolla at 1 1/16 miles on turf, Sky Cape was near a slow pace for the first six furlongs, took the lead in early stretch, and pulled clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Tangled Tango, who is also part of the Del Mar Derby field.

Sky Cape "came out great, jumping up and down," Mulhall said.

"If he relaxes the way he did the other day, he looks like he'll go on," Mulhall said. "In his previous races, we questioned how far he could go. He seems to be getting better every race he runs; he seems to be maturing. He's easier to saddle in the paddock."

Sky Cape has won 5 of 14 starts and $320,230 for Mulhall and Steve Taub. Mulhall bred Sky Cape in Kentucky. Sky Cape had one victory last year, and has earned $236,050 this year.

"Something just clicked," Mulhall said. "I've been working him behind horses, to make him settle and make him relax."

Gio Ponti has won 4 of 5 starts and $640,800.

Trained by Christophe Clement for Castleton Lyons, Gio Ponti raced wide in the Virginia Derby and won by a nose over Court Vision.

Garrett Gomez was aboard for that race and the Hill Prince and has the mount again on Sunday. Gomez will not need instructions, according to Nicholas Bachalard, Clement's assistant.

"He knows the horse," Bachalard said of Gomez. "He's easy to ride, so you can do whatever you want."

Gio Ponti's only loss was a troubled eighth-place finish in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf over a yielding turf course at Monmouth Park last October. His four wins have been on firm turf, the same conditions expected for the Del Mar Derby.

The winner of BC Juvenile Turf, Nownownow, is part of the Del Mar Derby field, and will be trying to break a two-race losing streak.

Nownownow finished fifth in the Irish 2000 Guineas at the Curragh on May 24 for trainer David Wachman and was fifth in the La Jolla Handicap in his 2008 U.S. debut and first start for trainer Jason Orman. Owned by Fab Oak Stable, Nownownow closed from last in a field of 10 to finish 3 1/2 lengths behind Sky Cape.

"I think he needed the race," Orman said. "He'll move forward off that race. I think he's more fit."

The race has little pace. Sky Cape can be near the front along with Tiz West, who finished a troubled 10th in the La Jolla Handicap as the 5-2 favorite.

"He got bounced around coming out of the chute," trainer Richard Mandella said, adding that he was stiff for a few days. "We'll have to hope that doesn't happen again. The way he's worked he looks like he's ready for his best."

Tiz West won the Grade 3 Cinema Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf at Hollywood Park in June and the one-mile La Puente Stakes at Santa Anita in April.

There are two other stakes winners in the field - Kilderry, who won a division of the Oceanside Stakes here on July 16, and Blue Chagall, who won a Group 3 stakes in France last year and recently joined trainer Julio Canani's stable.