03/23/2010 11:00PM

World Cup new challenge for Gio Ponti

Barbara D. Livingston
World Gio Ponti, a multiple Grade 1 winner on turf, will race on Tapeta in the World Cup.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Gio Ponti was the overlooked American champion of 2009.

Four wins in Grade 1 races and a second in the Breeders' Cup Classic were not enough to earn a spot among the Horse of the Year finalists, the domain of the superstar females Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

Those gals may have grabbed the headlines, but Gio Ponti will be after an astonishing $6 million first prize in Saturday's $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse.


Gio Ponti earned two Eclipse Awards for his 2009 accomplishments - the champion older male and champion turf male titles. They were deserved. He reeled off four consecutive Grade 1 wins on turf across the country from March to August and was only beaten a length by Zenyatta in the BC Classic.

It is that race that gives trainer Christophe Clement confidence that Gio Ponti can perform well in the Dubai World Cup, which is run over 1 1/4 miles on a Tapeta synthetic surface. In the Breeders' Cup, Gio Ponti proved he was more than just a turf horse. He finished the year with 4 wins in 7 starts and earnings of $2,333,000.

"The main thing with Gio Ponti is that it was a career year," Clement said. "It wasn't just one race."

An eight-time stakes winner, Gio Ponti is considered a leading American threat in the Dubai World Cup, which features runners from England, Dubai, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

A winner of 9 of 17 career starts and $3,183,800 for Shane Ryan's Castleton Lyons Farm of Lexington, Ky., Gio Ponti will be after his first win since the Arlington Million last August.

In the fall, Gio Ponti was second on a soft turf course in the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Belmont Park before losing the BC Classic after leading at the eighth pole. In his lone start this year, he was second by a nose to Karelian in the Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on turf at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 20.

Gio Ponti was upset in the starting gate that day, unseating jockey Ramon Dominguez, and was unlucky in the stretch when carried out by Karelian. Dominguez lodged an objection, but the Tampa Bay stewards did not change the order of finish.

Clement schooled Gio Ponti in the starting gate after the Tampa Bay Downs race, and thought the brief incident may have been the lingering effect of the delay before the start of the Breeders' Cup Classic when Quality Road refused to load and the other runners had to be unloaded and then put back in the gate.

Earlier this month in Florida, and this week at Meydan, Gio Ponti has been schooled in the gate. "He's been very good at the gate in the morning," Clement said last week.

With his win in the Arlington Million, as well as Grade 1 wins in the Frank Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita and Manhattan Handicap and Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park last year, Gio Ponti could have gone to stud this year.

But Ryan, who lives primarily in London and spends a few months of the year in Kentucky, wanted to try another campaign.

"We felt that as he is such a sound, consistent and versatile horse, we could continue to improve his credentials in 2010," Ryan said in an e-mail earlier this week. "Winning any Grade 1 race is special. The [Breeders' Cup] Classic was also a great performance. It was unfortunate that we happened to meet probably the best filly of our generation!"

Ryan bred Gio Ponti at his Kentucky farm. In an acceptance speech at the Eclipse Awards in January, his voice cracked as he recalled a conversation with his late father, Tony Ryan, the founder of European-based Ryanair Airlines, and how they planned the breeding operation in 2001.

The farm stands six stallions. Ryan also owns Man on the Moon, an unraced 3-year-old half-brother to Gio Ponti. He described Gio Ponti's two championships as "a tremendous result for both my family and the farm."

In recent days, Gio Ponti has appeared full of energy while galloping at Meydan, giving assistant trainer Christophe Lorieul the hope that the horse can return to his peak form.

Gio Ponti may already have an edge against his American rivals. He finished in front of Richard's Kid in the BC Classic. The other American-based runner in the field is Furthest Land, who won the BC Dirt Mile last fall but has lost two starts this year.

They are not the only contenders, and Clement knows it. The Japanese filly Red Desire and the multiple Group 1 winner Vision d'Etat, based in France, have the trainer's respect.

"It's nice to have a live horse in a $10 million race," Clement said. "He's a stronger horse."

If that leads to a win on Saturday, Gio Ponti will get plenty of attention in coming months, regardless of what racing's leading ladies accomplish.