Gio Ponti reaches for The Stars

US turf champion's team issue Breeders' Cup Classic challenge to Derby winner
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The Independent Online

It is not just the Europeans who tend to look down their noses at American turf horses. The locals themselves – from stud owners to punters – have always treated them as a lower caste than their cousins on dirt. In Gio Ponti, however, they have a champion who demands an end to all condescension.

His fourth consecutive Grade One success, in the 27th Arlington Million, confirms Gio Ponti as one of the best American grass runners in many years. In theory, his record in 2009 now surpasses even that of Sea The Stars, though clearly the European champion has won his three elite prizes in a rather more exacting environment. But you would go a long way to see them go head to head.

That may yet happen, albeit you might have to go a very long way indeed. Shifting sands in the American sport mean that the Breeders' Cup Classic, once again staged on a surface congenial to grass horses at Santa Anita, could well prove irresistible to both by November.

John Oxx's present intention is to run Sea The Stars in the Juddmonte International Stakes at York tomorrow week, albeit it will have to stop raining first. But he acknowledges that the unprecedented success of the Europeans last year, when sampling a synthetic surface for the first time at a Breeders' Cup, "brings the Classic into play".

And his compatriot, Shane Ryan, seemed of like mind after his Castletown Lyons colours had breezed clear in the sultry Chicago air on Saturday. Asked how Gio Ponti might compare with the brilliant fillies, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, he retorted: "I think we should all run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and find out."

He was doubtless aware that the owner of Rachel Alexandra has already vowed never to take her off dirt, following a disappointing experiment with Curlin in the Classic last year. But Christophe Clément, the émigré Frenchman who trains Gio Ponti for the Ryans, pointedly observed that "a horse as good as this" transcends the categories so cherished by the conservatives of the American Turf – many of whom, it is worth reiterating, have vested interests in the survival of dirt racing.

Arlington itself, of course, has long been a beacon for the dismantlement of barriers between different racing cultures. As it happens, this time the overseas raiders had to make do with a supporting role. The Irish and French respectively took second in the Secretariat Stakes, Black Bear Island just losing a gripping duel with Take The Points, and the Beverly D, where Alnadana chased home Dynaforce. But there was no mistaking the most significant European performance on the card, whether by horse or rider.

Adam Kirby is still only 20 and had never ridden in America before Walter Swinburn legged him on to Stotsfold for the Million. In keeping faith, Swinburn had evoked the example of Michael Stoute, who entrusted him with no less a horse than Shergar at a similar age. And Kirby, a bashful lad out of the saddle, responded by blending seamlessly with top-class American rivals, settling Stotsfold towards the rear before producing him through traffic on the home turn.

For one moment in the straight he seemed poised to pass Gio Ponti, but the idling length and a quarter winner sensed the challenge and rallied. The effort then told on Stotsfold, who was just collared for second by Just As Well, but he still managed to finish six lengths clear of Cima De Triomphe in fourth, with Einstein only fifth. (Cima De Triomphe, incidentally, was beaten a similar distance by Sea The Stars at Sandown last month.)

For Kirby, this was palpably a coming of age. "People don't realise how good he is," Swinburn said. "He's got the gift, has always had it. We identified it early, that's all. He has the hands, and a cool head too. It's just sad that his height could give him problems, with his weight. But you never know. There have been others that have defied the same odds – including Lester Piggott."

Such unqualified praise counts double from Swinburn, himself making a breakthrough in his own, second career. Stotsfold's participation had seemed decidedly optimistic, but he had always been calmly confident. "This is the happiest I have ever been in defeat," he said. "All doors are open for the horse now, and we'll be campaigning him aggressively. My only worry had been the rain on Friday, because he's even better on fast ground. But he has a lovely, long stride and when he's allowed to use it, he picks up. The horse has shown that he belongs here."

And, no less so, the men around him.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Beauchamp Xerxes (7.50 Windsor) Has shown more than enough to win a maiden and worth another chance after meeting traffic at Newmarket last time. Drops back to the trip over which he ran so well on his debut and he has since rubbed shoulders with the likes of Harbinger and Alwaary.

Next best

Mount Hadley (6.50 Windsor)

Can set up a double for Gerard Butler, also trainer of Beauchamp Xerxes, having run far better than his finishing position implied at Goodwood last time. Was making headway when badly hampered that day.

One to watch

Al Zir (Saeed bin Suroor) comes from a stable in red-hot form and was significantly backed on his debut at Newmarket on Friday. It was soon clear why as this American-bred ran out a commanding four-length winner.

Where the money's going

Harbinger is 7-2 from 4-1 with Totesport for the Ladbrokes St Leger.