While most racing fans are looking forward to Zenyatta's quest for perfection in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic and Goldikova's shot at a "three-peat" in the Mile, it's worth keeping an eye on Gio Ponti.
Why? Well, Gio Ponti is pre-entered in both races and his owner, Shane Ryan, president of Castleton Lyons, hasn't decided which way to go. Either way, it could be a problem for Zenyatta or Goldikova.
There's some sentiment that this year's Classic field is tougher than the one Zenyatta bested last year at Santa Anita, what with Lookin At Lucky, Blame, Quality Road and Haynesfield all in the lineup. Maybe so. But in retrospect, the likes of Summer Bird, Richard's Kid and Colonel John looked pretty tough a year ago. And the 2009 foreign contingent of Twice Over and Rip Van Winkle certainly seemed more formidable than the only overseas entrant this year, Japanese invader Espoir City.
With all that quality in the 2009 Classic, who finished second? Right. Gio Ponti. He looked like a winner in the stretch until Zenyatta blew past for a 1-length win. Who is better this year? The 5-year-old Gio Ponti or the 6-year-old Zenyatta?
Gio Ponti was a close fourth in the Dubai World Cup this March, then second in the Manhattan, first in the Man o' War, second in the Arlington Million and first in the Shadwell Turf Mile. That's a testing schedule that either will leave him well-primed for the big race or over the top.
It's also worth noting Gio Ponti has never raced on a dirt surface. Eighteen of his 22 starts have come on the grass; the others, on artificial surfaces. His recent works have all been on the turf, too.
Zenyatta, on the other hand, has been a relative homebody, straying from home only once this year, to win the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas for the second straight year. Those two races are her only career starts on real dirt. The rest have been on California plastic.
And, while Zenyatta has won all five starts so far in 2010, the last three have been by a half length, a neck and a half length. With her come-from-behind style, that puts a lot of pressure on jockey Mike Smith to make his move at just the right time and to find a way either around or through rivals to the finish line.
Gio Ponti also races from off the pace. Last year, Ramon Dominguez may have moved too soon in the Classic, giving Zenyatta a chance in the final 16th to make up the difference. Has he learned his lesson?
Now, what if Gio Ponti goes in the Mile? He's well-proven at the 1 1/4-mile Classic distance, if not the surface. But he also has demonstrated he can go short. In four starts at 1 mile on the grass, he has three wins, including a victory in his last outing, the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland on Oct. 9.
Goldikova, in 15 starts in the grassy mile, has 12 wins and three seconds. She typically sticks closer to the pace, giving jockey Olivier Peslier a few more options late in the race than he might have on a "from the clouds" type.
Two races back, Goldikova went to the lead late in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville, only to be caught by Makfi and finish second. If she were to lose to Gio Ponte in the Breeders' Cup, that would be the likely scenario. However, it should be noted the Deauville strip was rated "soft" that day in August and Goldikova much prefers the firm footing she is likely to find in Louisville, where the weather forecast for the coming week does not mention any substantial precipitation.
None of the above is meant to imply the Classic or the Mile would be a two-horse race. The Classic field is deep and talented, as previously noted. The Mile may be even more contentious with the likes of Court Vision, Paco Boy and Proviso pre-entered. Each of them is a Group 1 or Grade I winner this year at the same trip. Paco Boy missed catching Goldikova by 1/2 length in his last start.
However the fields finalize, both races promise to be memorable. And those are only two of the 14 on the Championship card.
Meanwhile, weekend on-track action featured a trio of major international events and a trio of state-bred festivals Stateside:
Buena Vista, under Christophe Soumillon, captured Sunday's Tenno Sho Autumn at Tokyo Race Course, backing up her second-place finish to Dar Re Mi in the Dubai Sheema Classic and potentially setting up a showdown with Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe runner-up Nakayama Festa in the Japan Cup. Buena Vista, a 4-year-old Special Week filly, raced in the middle of the pack until the stretch, moved up and struck the lead with about 200 meters to go, eventually winning by 2 lengths over Pelusa. Earnestly was third. "I knew we got it right after the last turn," winning trainer Hiroyoshi Matsuda said. "She was in her best form so I wasn't really worried. Of course, it depends on how she comes out of this race but she'll probably go on to challenge the Japan Cup and eventually the Arima Kinen after that."
Lion Tamer rallied from a pace-pressing trip to win Saturday's $1.5 million (Australian) Victoria Derby at Flemington going away. Jockey Dwayne Dunn said he had no choice but to let Lion Tamer run with about 600 meters to go and run is just what his mount did, spurting clear of the field to win by 6 1/2 lengths. Praecido recovered from a bad traffic problem to finish second, a short neck better than Retrieve. The favorite, Rekindled Interest, faded to finish fifth. Lion Tamer, trained by New Zealander Murray Baker, now will be set aside for a run at the New Zealand Derby and Australian Derby in the springtime. Winning owner-breeder Phil Bayly said the victory was payback for the second-place finish of his My Blue Denim in the Melbourne Cup two decades ago. Lion Tamer is a great-grandson of My Blue Denim, as is Harris Tweed, who is scheduled to start for Bayly in Tuesday's $6 million (Australian) Melbourne Cup.
Roderick O'Connor, well-beaten by Frankel in the recent Dewhurst Stakes, regrouped nicely to win Sunday's Group 1 Criterium International for 2-year-olds at Saint-Cloud by 1 length over Salto. With Johnny Murtagh up, Roderick O'Connor, a son of Galileo, appeared to have the race won as the field headed into the stretch. But he suddenly drifted sharply to the right and Murtagh had his hands full getting the colt straightened out. Once he accomplished that, the outcome was not in doubt. Aidan O'Brien trains the winner.
The California Cup is an attractive alternative for owners and trainers who would rather not ship their state-bred horses to run on real dirt at Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup – or who might not be quite good enough. The mix is usually exciting in its own right.
Soul Candy broke a step slow in the $150,000 Classic, Presented by Citi National Bank, chased until the stretch turn then rallied along the outside to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Unusual Suspect moved right behind the winner and finished second. The favorite, Enriched, pressed the pace, led briefly and faded to finish third. Soul Candy, a 4-year-old, California-bred Birdonthewire gelding, finished 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:48.94 with Rafael Bejarano up. Winning trainer Patrick Gallagher said, "It's nice to run in these Cal-bred stakes. He'll be more of a distance horse. He keeps going steady. He doesn't have a big turn of foot. He just stays steady and that helped today. It was a nice pace and that helped him."
Ultra Blend also rallied from well back to win the $100,000 CTT/TOC Matron Stakes by 1/2 length over Lady Railrider. Warren's Jitterbug finished third. Ultra Blend, a 4-year-old, Richly Blended filly, covered 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.06.
Cost of Freedom shot out to the lead in the $100,000 Donald Valpredo Sprint, extended the lead as asked by jockey Joe Talamo and coasted home first by 6 1/4 lengths over Runaway Bandito. A Lil Dumaani finished third. Cost of Freedom is a 7-year-old Cee's Tizzy gelding. He got the 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:08.58.
Bruce's Dream caught pacesetting Colgan's Chip just before the wire in the $100,000 John C. Mabee Mile, winning by a neck. Liberian Freighter finished third. Bruce's Dream, with Talamo up, got the mile on firm turf in 1:34.37. He is a 4-year-old Atticus gelding.
La Nez stalked the pace in the $100,000 John Deere Distaff, worked her way to the lead before the stretch and got home first, 1 3/4 lengths better than Perfect Vintage. U R All That I Am, the favorite, made a late run but settled for third, another neck back. La Nez, a 3-year-old Storm Creek filly, got the 6 furlongs on the grass in 1:09.47 with Victor Espinoza in the irons.
Slammer Time was just up at the finish to beat Joy Boy by a head in the $75,000 Bob Benoit Juvenile. Woodmans Luck rallied from well back to finish third. Slammer Time, a Grand Slam colt, ran the 1 1/16 mile on the all-weather track in 1:44.63 with Bejarano riding.
Swiss Wild Cat waited for an opening on the rail in the stretch run of the $75,000 Robert H. Walter Juvenile Fillies, shot through and was first by a nose over California Nectar. Warren's Flyer was third, just another head back. Swiss Wild Cat, a Ministers Wild Cat filly, was clocked in 1:45.49 with Espinoza riding.
On Sunday, Briecat led all the way in the $150,000 Las Palmas Handicap, a Grade II event at 1 mile on the turf, and held on at the end to post the upset by a neck over Westwood Pride. Turning Top was another head back in third. Briecat, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred Adcat mare, was clocked in 1:34.77 over firm going with Pat Valenzuela up. "She's very, very tough on the lead," said winning trainder Vladimir Cerin. "The key with her is to open up when she turns for home and hope they can't get her. Today they couldn't. I still wasn't confident running her today. We have her nominated for a race in Louisiana on the night of the Delta Jackpot (Nov. 20). But I figured if we run her here, I won't have to train her hard."
Hawthorne Race Course
Illinois racing has high hopes of passing legislation after Tuesday's election that would permit slot machines at the tracks. While the additional revenue is desperately needed, Saturday's Illinois Festival of Racing, featuring a half dozen $100,000 events for state-breds, provided plenty of excitement.
Third Chance needed only one chance to win the Showtime Deb for 2-year-old fillies going 6 furlongs on the fast main track. With Shane Sellers up, the odds-on favorite led most of the way and drew off smartly at the end to score by 6 3/4 lengths over Joyce Marie. Sam's Philly was third. Third Chance, a daughter of Kafwain, finished in 1:10.44. Third Chance, owned by local television anchorman Ron Magers, was coming off a third-place finish in the Grade III Arlington Washington Lassie two starts earlier.
Kathleen L won a three-way pace battle in the Powerless Handicap for fillies and mares, then slowly drew off to win by 2 lengths over late-running Ripe Tomato. Wild Hope also was along in the final furlong to finish third. Kathleen L, a 4-year-old Pine Bluff filly, got the 6 furlongs in 1:11.23 with Florent Geroux in the irons.
Dundalk Dust survived some traffic problems at the quarter pole in the Illini Princess for distaffers at 1 1/16 miles, came five-wide to find room and got home first, 2 3/4 lengths ahead of the favorite, Souper Miss. Jitterbug Blues finished third. Dundalk Dust, a 3-year-old Military filly, finished in 1:45.47 with Pablo Morales up.
Luck With a Kiss dueled favorite Uncle Wayne into submission in the Sun Power Stakes for 2-year-old colts and geldings, then surged away to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Uncle Wayne held second by 3 3/4 lengths over Thewayitusedtobe. Luck With a Kiss, a Trust N Luck gelding, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.61 with Timothy Thornton handling the reins.
River Bear had nowhere to go at midstretch in the Lightning Jet Handicap at 6 furlongs. But when Danush Sukie finally found him room along the inside, the 5-year-old Unreal Zeal gelding went on about his business, getting up to win by 3/4 length over Last Wompus. Mighty Rule finished third. River Bear was clocked in 1:10.55.
He's Bonafide tracked the pace off the rail in the Buck's Boy Handicap, hooked with St. Maximus Gato a furlong out and prevailed by a neck over that rival. Color Me Blue finished third, a half length further back. The 4-year-old Animo de Veleroso gelding ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.00 with Quincy Hamilton up.
Grand Style rallied five-wide around the leaders in Saturday's $250,000 (Canadian) Princess Elizabeth Stakes for Canadian-bred 2-year-old fillies and drew clear, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Lisvernane. Sense of Pride was third and the favorite, Bubbles to the Top faded from the lead in deep stretch to finish fourth. Grand Style, a Giant's Causeway filly out of the Thunder Gulch mare Dancethruthestorm, got the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:46.31 under Eurico Da Silva. It was her first win in four starts. "She has a lot to learn," Da Silva said. "but I think this filly will improve a lot. Another couple of races and I think she will be much better than what you saw today."
Fantasia came from last of eight to win Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) River Memories Stakes for fillies and mares by a nose over Never Retreat. Another late runner, Magic Broomstick, was just another nose back in third. Fantasia, a 4-year-old, British-bred Sadler's Wells filly, got the mile on yielding turf in 1:38.32. "She was in hand the whole way and was just waiting on me to call on her," winning rider Rosie Napravnik said. "I was waiting as long as I could. It was close, but she really dug in and used all her heart."
Indian Apple Is came seven-wide around most of the field to win Sunday's $150,000 Ontario Fashion Stakes for fillies and mares by a half length over pacesetting Waccamaw. Shukriya finished third. Indian Apple Is, a 4-year-old, Ontario-bred Indian Charlie filly, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.76 with Chantal Sutherland in the irons. "She's worth some serious money," winning trainer Bob Tiller said. "She's by Indian Charlie. We're going on to the (Bessarabian) stakes in two weeks at seven eighths. That'll be perfect for her."
Safety Zone rallied from far back to upset Sunday's $100,000 Labeeb Stakes, winning by a head over the favorite, Woodbourne, who led in the stretch. It was another neck back to Tybalt and a mere nose to Nicantor in fourth. Safety Zone, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred King Cougat gelding, finished the mile on yielding turf in 1:38.26 with Gerry Olguin up. Winning trainer Mark Casse said Safety Zone was acquired with a different added-money race in a different country in mind. "We were looking for a horse for Barbados for the Gold Cup," he said. "One of the other reasons I claimed him was for how well he had run against Woodbourne."
Reading the cards for next year's Kentucky Derby? Pending the results of the Breeders' Cup races, ponder Sunday's $100,000 Iroquois Stakes, won by Astrology. The Kentucky-bred sure has the breeding -- by A.P. Indy, out of the Quiet American mare Quiet Eclipse. With Garrett Gomez up for trainer Steve Asmussen, Astrology prompted the pace, easily assumed the lead turning for home and won by 2 3/4 lengths. Robo Bobo closed well to finish second and Maybesomaybenot, the early leader, faded to finish a well-beaten third. Astrology negotiated the mile in 1:38.43. "He is a beautiful horse, tons of pedigree," Asmussen said. "This is a very important 2-year-old win but he does childish things … He just needs to get to the next step. This will help. I think he's a little too childish, but he's got a ton of ability. He is very impressive to train. He's got a beautiful big stride. But I think he can do better."
In Sunday's $150,000 Pocahontas for 2-year-old fillies, Dancing In Her Dreams came from well off the pace, battled through traffic entering the stretch and finally made her move inside, drawing off to win by 5 1/4 lengths. Eden Star and Missyoulikecrazy completed the trifecta. Dancing In Her Dreams, a Kentucky-bred Tapit filly, ran the 1 mile in 1:38.59 with Julien Leparoux aboard, remaining perfect in two lifetime starts. Winning trainer John Ward said he track wasn't easy for his filly "but she handled everything well. We will see her again in Florida and she needs to put some meat on her bones. But that's what you're looking for and I think she will run as far you want her to go."
Our Khristy rallied from last of eight to win Saturday's $100,000 Turnback the Alarm Handicap for fillies and mares by a nose over Funny Moon. Way With Words finished third. Funny Moon, the favorite, got first run on the leaders and led down the stretch but winning jockey Ramon Dominguez timed his move perfectly to hit the line first. Our Khristy, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Newfoundland filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.21. "She's finally getting her ducks in order," winning trainer Todd Beattie said. "We haven't settled on a spot yet for her next start, but we like it up here."
Bribon came from off the pace to win Saturday's $100,000 Bold Ruler Handicap, getting clear in the final 16th to beat Jersey Town by 1 3/4 lengths. Half Metal Jacket was third and the favorite, Tahitian Warrior, faded in the stretch to finish fourth. Bribon, a 7-year-old, French-bred Mark of Esteem gelding, finished 7 furlongs on the main track in 1:22.36 with John Velazquez up. "For him to be that close without me asking him, I knew they were going slow," Velazquez said. "And that was good because I didn't have to ask him until the quarter pole. And sure enough, when I did, he went on." Bribon was sixth in his last ract, the Forego at Saratoga on Sept. 4. Trainer Todd Pletcher said he injured a foot in the Forego, needed time to recover and wasn't a candidate to be supplemented to the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Rustler Hustler didn't exactly rustle out of the starting gate for Sunday's $80,000 Gnome's Gold Stakes for 2-year-olds. But he did hustle to come from last to first in deep stretch, winning by 1 3/4 lengths over pacesetter Dual Citizen. Monzon finished third. Rustler Hustler, a Pennsylvania-bred Ecton Park colt, covered 1 1/16 miles on the firm inner turf in 1:44.28 with Ramon Dominguez up.
Ruthenia rallied from well back to win Sunday's $80,000 Good Mood Stakes for 2-year-old fillies by 3/4 length over Excited. Speedy's Gal had no early speed but came with a late rush to take third. Ruthenia, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Pulpit out of the Rahy mare Ruthian, got the 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:43.18 under Alan Garcia.
Royal Currier led all the way against just three rivals in Sunday's $70,000 Grey Planet Stakes for 2-year-olds, was never seriously challenged and won by 2 1/2 lengths. The odds-on favorite, Poseidon's Warrior, settled for second, followed by Smooz Talker and Brother In Arms. Royal Currier, a Florida-bred Red Bullet gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.41 for Dominguez.
And in Sunday's $70,000 Sweet Patootie Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, Promise Me a Cat drew off smartly through the stretch to win by 5 lengths over Revenue. Valiant Passion finished third. Promise Me a Cat, a Florida-bred D'wildcat filly, got the 6 furlongs on the main track in 1:11.09 for jockey Javier Castellano.
Win Willy took the overland route in Saturday's $125,000 Brandywine Stakes but still got up in time to win by a length over Not Abroad. In the Juice finished third. Win Willy, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Monarchos colt, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.95 for Abel Castellano Jr. Win Willy now has two wins and three seconds from six starts in 2010. He has five wins from 13 career starts.
Successful Dan lived up to his name in Saturday's $150,000 Greenbriar Fayette Stakes, rallying past pacesetting Exhi in the lane to win by 3 lengths. Exhi held second by a neck over late-running Stately Victor, winner of the Blue Grass last spring. Successful Dan, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Successful Appeal gelding, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:47.09 with Julien Leparoux up. "He was very relaxed, but they went pretty fast in front," Leparoux said. "When I asked him, he just took off. (At the end) he was putting up his ears. I had a ton of horse left, so that's a good thing."
Ben's Cat outfinished Baltimore Bob to win Saturday's $50,000 Find Handicap for Maryland-breds by a nose. Court Band also did his best running late but settled for third. Ben's Cat, a 4-year-old Parker's Storm Cat gelding, ran the 9 furlongs on "good" turf in 1:52.20 with Julien Pimentel up.
Teaks North stalked the pace while saving ground in Saturday's $70,000 Big Brown Stakes for 3-year-olds, got through along the rail in the stretch and won by 2 lengths over Cactus Charlie. Southern Ridge finished third. Teaks North, a Florida-bred Northern Afleet gelding, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.06 with Jose Valdivia Jr. in the irons.
Dubai Dancer stalked the pace in Sunday's $75,000 Witches' Brew Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, shot to the lead when prompted by jockey Eddie Castro and drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths over C C's Pal. Bwana Babe finished third. Dubai Dancer, a Kentucky-bred A.P. Indy filly, got the 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.01.
The weekend's third state-bred event, the New Mexico Classic Cup, ran Sunday at Zia Park.
Double Smart was just up by a nose at the wire to win the $180,000 Rocky Gulch Championship Stakes over Enchanted Outlaw with Runnin Red third. Double Smart, a 4-year-old Premeditation gelding, got the mile on a fast track in 1:37.35 with Ramsey Zimmerman up.
Cali Baby circled rivals in the $170,000 Peppers Pride Fillies and Mares, then left the rest behind, winning off by 9 1/2 lengths under Alfredo Juarez Jr. La Sopresa finished second. Cali Baby, a 4-year-old Thatsusintheolbean filly, ran 1 mile in 1:37.71.
Smash Dancer dueled to the lead in the $170,000 Sprint Championship, then fended off multiple challenges before winning by a neck over Lefty Who. Bonndaddy's finished third. Smash Dancer, a 3-year-old Robyn Dancer filly, got the 6 furlongs in 1:09.31 with Miguel Hernandez in the irons.
Russian Lane dueled to the lead at the top of the stretch in the $140,000 Juvenile Colt and Gelding Stakes, then was all out at the end to hold off Silent Sunday by a neck. Beau Wizer was third. Russian Lane, a Devon Lane colt, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.86 under Jorge Bourdieu.
Squall Wilbud came from well back to win the $140,000 Juvenile Fillies by a neck over pacesetting Shamrock Girl. Highspeed Rescue finished third. Squall Wilbud, a Squall filly, was clocked in 1:10.96, toting Juarez.
Glory Be Mine set a pressured pace in the $140,000 Filly Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then persevered, beating Elvira Who by a half length. Awintersdream was third. Glory Be Mine, a Dome filly, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.67 with Joe Martinez aboard.
Train Rider Blues caught pacesetting longshot Herbal Slew in the final jumps to win the $140,000 Colts and Geldings Stakes by a head. Chuchuluco finished third, another nose back. Train Rider Blues, a Desert God colt, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.99 with Martinez handling the reins.