Gio Ponti is sitting on a big performance. After losing his last two races as the favorite, and being completely winless in his 2011 season thus far, the two-time champion turf horse may appear to be anything but a sure thing. Nevertheless, I’m just going to stick my neck out and predict it, anyway: Gio Ponti will return to the winner’s circle in the Grade I Arlington Million this Saturday and share the spotlight with John Henry as the only horses to have won the race twice.
The field for the Arlington Million isn’t full of familiar names, thanks to its international appeal, but this only makes the race more interesting. However, Gio Ponti should recognize Cape Blanco and Mission Approved (or at least their rear-ends), as they beat him in his last two outings, the Grade I Man o’ War and the Grade I Manhattan. The Irish colt Cape Blanco was served the role as the morning line favorite at 9-5, but is he really that much more impressive than our American star? While his overall lifetime percentage may look better, and with his victory over Gio last time out, he seems to have a slight advantage. But when push comes to shove, Gio is always roaring down the stretch, in the thick of it, while Cape Blanco seems to be either there, or M.I.A.
After watching one aggravating ride after another, one must draw the conclusion that regular rider Ramon Dominguez likes to let Gio Ponti do all the work for him. While the jockey is certainly among the best in the nation, whenever he gets astride this hard-knocking horse, his over-confidence spills over into disaster. (Call it a case of Zenyattaitis, if you will.) While critics have been saying Gio Ponti is “not the same horse” as in 2009, they have failed to examine the errors of his pilot, who has kept holding him back in the final stages of the race until the last possible moment, always taking him wide around the final turn, and giving the horse the impossible task of playing catch-up in the end. While it is true that Gio Ponti has won running from last to first, it is simply unfair to ask a horse to make a miracle run of it every single race—especially considering the horse is getting older and has not consistently won in this fashion. If I could have one wish, it would be for Ramon Dominguez to have the awakening that Garrett Gomez did aboard Blind Luck, when he figured out the filly should make an earlier move to break her losing streak. (Note that Blind Luck has won three races in a row since Gomez figured this out. Gomez, ironically, used to ride Gio Ponti and was in the saddle for three of the horse’s early stakes wins.) Gio Ponti’s best turf speed is the fastest among the starters in this field, and he has the fastest Beyer Speed Figure at this 1 ¼-mile distance. This horse still runs like a champion, and always comes with his patented charge; he just needs to be better set up to deliver it.
As for the other starters in the field, the French-bred Zack Hall looks to be a serious threat with the addition of first-time Lasix, which may have greatly affected the Irish winner of last year’s Million, Debussy. While Zack Hall has not won a graded stakes event, he racked up three wins in a row in France before finishing second in the Group III Prix D’hedouville at Longchamp. Irish invader Wigmore Hall, who ran over this course last year behind Paddy O’ Prado in the Secretariat Stakes, will also run on Lasix. The jet-setting Wigmore Hall ran third in the Grade I Dubai Duty Free at Meydan Racecourse this March and is looking for his first victory of the year after running in Singapore and Hong Kong. American hopefuls include Tajaaweed, winner of the prep race for the Million, the Grade III Arlington Handicap, and Rahystrada, who won the Arlington Handicap last year.
Tonight’s forecast for Arlington Heights is calling for a 60% chance of scattered thunderstorms, carrying over into tomorrow. According to the Weather Channel, “some storms may be severe.” As it sounds like none of the horses in this field want anything to do with a yielding turf course, the rain would affect everybody’s chances. Let’s hope the rain avoids Arlington Park altogether and the sun hangs out for a fabulous day of Illinois racing.
The Grade I Arlington Million will air live on HRTV and WGN from the Arlington Park. Post time is approximately 5:15pm CT.