06/04/2010 11:00PM

Winchester tops Gio Ponti in Manhattan

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Barbara D. Livingston
Winchester defeats Gio Ponti by a half-length in the Manhattan Handicap.

ELMONT, N.Y. - That trainer Christophe Clement won Saturday's at Belmont Park was not a surprise. That he won it with Winchester and not Gio Ponti was.

While Gio Ponti, the 6-5 favorite, ran a remarkable race having to weave through traffic, Winchester, under Cornelio Velasquez, had a clear run on the outside and stormed down the center of Belmont Park's inner turf course to run down Gio Ponti in the final strides to win the $400,000 Manhattan by one-half length.

Gio Ponti, who had to avoid a tiring Interpatation at the three-eighths pole and then split horses in the stretch, had had to settle for second, one-length ahead of Expansion.

"They both ran great," said Clement, who won this race last year with Gio Ponti. "Gio Ponti ran an amazing race. Winchester ran the race of his life."

Gio Ponti, who was the champion turf horse and older male last year, was making his first start since finishing fourth in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March. He has not won since last year's Arlington Million.

Winchester was one of seven Grade 1 winners in the field, but that victory came two years ago in the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park. Since then, he lost eight consecutive races before winning a second-level allowance race at Keeneland on April 21.

Clement's belief was that Winchester was better on soft or yielding ground. But he was pleased enough with the way Winchester worked in company with Gio Ponti on firm turf last Sunday that he decided to leave the horse in the race even when forecasted thunderstorms never materialized.

"I just always thought that Winchester, as he comes from so far out of it, that softer ground may have give him a better chance," Clement said. ``Today, for some reason they've been closing on the fast turf and he ran a superb race.''

Winchester actually raced in the back of the pack along with Gio Ponti for most of the race as Jet Propulsion set the pace, chased by Take the Points, Just as Well, and Interpatation.

Gio Ponti, under Ramon Dominguez, had to go around a tiring Interpatation at the three-eighths pole but then dove back to the inside for the stretch. Dominguez split horses aboard Gio Ponti and made the lead 50 yards out, but Winchester, who had one horse beaten at the three-sixteenths pole, closed like a train to get up in the final strides.

Winchester, a 5-year-old son of Theatrical owned by Diane and Bertram Firestone, covered the 1 1/4 miles in 1:59.46 and returned $44.80.

"I think the best horse was maybe Gio Ponti, but there was a lot of traffic inside," Velasquez said. "I had a better trip by staying in the clear at the quarter pole and he finished good."