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JULY 17, 2010

by Kellie Reilly

In this installment, we'll compare notes from the Man o' War S. (G1) and United Nations S. (G1), bid a bittersweet farewell to a Southern California veteran, welcome back another from stud duty, review developments in Canada, and take a quick look ahead to this weekend's action.

Back in business: The Man o' War appeared to be the perfect spot for reigning turf champion GIO PONTI (Tale of the Cat) to get back on the winning track. This year's renewal arguably didn't come up as deep as the 2009 Man o' War, which featured representatives from as far afield as Europe and California. Gio Ponti had swamped that high-flying group in short order last year, so going into his title defense on July 10, the Christophe Clement charge ranked as much the best horse. And so it proved, but as the Duke of Wellington reportedly said of Waterloo, it was a close-run thing.

In fact, the Man o' War could hardly have shaped up worse for the late-running Gio Ponti. Somehow MISSION APPROVED (With Approval) got loose on the lead through laughable fractions of :26, :52 1/5 and 1:18. If you didn't know that the turf course was very firm, you'd have sworn that it must have been soft as the leader danced his merry waltz. Poor STRIKE A DEAL (Smart Strike), who was forcibly restrained in second, was begging to be allowed to stride on, but in vain. Considering that he had won the May 15 Dixie S. (G2) in wire-to-wire fashion, one would have thought that his best chance was on the engine. So much for that.

Meanwhile, Gio Ponti brought up the rear. Ten lengths adrift after the first quarter, he had improved to five lengths behind at the mile marker. He was poised to strike turning for home, but was briefly caught in a pocket when Ramon Dominguez decided not to hook to the outside. For a few strides, things looked a bit dicey as Gio Ponti drafted just behind EXPANSION (Maria's Mon). Once Expansion kicked into top gear, he opened the door for Gio Ponti.

By this time, however, Mission Approved was doing everything in his power to complete his theft at 53-1. The six-year-old was a claimer of late, but he had back class as the front-running winner of the 2007 Saranac S. (G3) and the 2008 Singspiel S. (Can-G3). Just a little more than a year ago, Mission Approved was finishing second as the defending champion in the Singspiel. He was ready to return to that kind of effort here, in his first start since being claimed for $35,000 by Naipaul Chatterpaul. Mission Approved quickened well turning for home, continued too strongly for Expansion to catch him, and hoped that the wire would come in time for him to pull the shocker. He managed to throw in his last three furlongs in a shade less than :34, and got his final eighth in about :11 1/5.

There was just one problem for Mission Approved: Gio Ponti finished even faster! Gaining with each and every stride, the champion sizzled his last furlong in about :10 3/5 to collar him by a neck, as though aping Zenyatta (Street Cry [Ire]). Like the unbeaten mare, Gio Ponti raised the suspense level for his fans before showing that he too knows precisely where the wire is. As he whizzed by in complete control, Gio Ponti seemed to say, "Relax! I had him measured all the time."

Even more remarkably, Gio Ponti clocked his final three-eighths in a blistering :33 -- despite the fact that he wasn't going full throttle the whole time, but was bottled up and awaiting room. On this evidence, Gio Ponti is still world-class, and a champion who is determined to keep his crown.

That leads us to the question of where Gio Ponti goes next. Should he bid for an historic repeat victory in the August 21 Arlington Million (G1)? Or should he take advantage of an open handicap division out West to plunder the August 28 Pacific Classic (G1) on the Polytrack at Del Mar? It's a tough call. Do you continue to build his resume as turf champ, or do you branch out to snare a Grade 1 on synthetic?

I can see the arguments on both sides, but for whatever it's worth, I'd rather see him make history at Arlington, solidifying his case for another turf Eclipse Award. Viewed from the perspective of year-end honors, the Pacific Classic doesn't fit as securely into the frame. Even if he wins there, he'd have to clash with Quality Road (Elusive Quality) on dirt at some point if he hopes to repeat as older male champion; at the same time, leaving his Arlington Million crown undefended could have an unintended consequence, propping the door open for a rival for the turf Eclipse. On the other hand, if expanding the portfolio is the primary aim, the Pacific Classic is a sensible spot.

Globalization: One of the horses that Gio Ponti had defeated in the 2009 Man o' War, the French-based CHINCHON (Ire) (Marju), jetted in to Monmouth Park for the July 3 United Nations this time around instead. That wise decision on the part of trainer Carlos Laffon-Parias yielded dividends when Chinchon dismantled a stellar cast with a visually-stunning, last-to-first move.

With its $760,000 purse, and Gio Ponti-free zone, the United Nations mustered a deeper field overall than the Man o' War -- even in the absence of two-time UN hero PRESIOUS PASSION (Royal Anthem), who is now enjoying R & R at a farm.

The final furlong unfolded like a rapid-fire sequence. Frequent graded bridesmaid STRAIGHT STORY (Giant's Causeway) surged to the front, only to be accosted in turn by multiple Grade 1 star TAKE THE POINTS (Even the Score). WINCHESTER (Theatrical [Ire]), fresh from his opportunistic upset of stablemate Gio Ponti in the Manhattan H. (G1), was on the verge of commencing his bid further back, when Chinchon rocketed past him as if he were standing still. Before Take the Points and Straight Story knew what hit them, Chinchon was already long gone and careering away to a 1 1/2-length victory.

At first blush, this looks more impressive than Gio Ponti's repeat in the Man o' War -- an eye-catching rally, a daylight margin over stronger rivals, a much faster final time for 1 3/8 miles. Chinchon's effort was undoubtedly a career best for him, but it would be unfair to draw hasty conclusions vis-a-vis Gio Ponti. The UN's final time was a product of its more realistic pace. Chinchon's closing sectionals were sparkling (final three-eighths in :34 and last furlong in about :11 1/5), but as a bald comparison, not as fast as Gio Ponti's in the Man o' War.

Furthermore, Gio Ponti was the only deep closer to finish in the top three in the paceless Man o' War, while the top three finishers in the UN all came from off the pace -- Take the Points and Winchester, sixth and seventh much of the way, closed for second and third, respectively. (By the way, that ties into a couple of points from my last diary: Take the Points convincingly erased my questions about his best distance, while Winchester's effort reinforced my belief that he's sharper at 1 1/4 miles.)

As a result, UN fourth-placer Straight Story deserves extra credit for faring best of those who raced near the pace; he was beaten a scant half-length for second. Although it's nitpicking to complain about such a strong effort, I can't help wondering whether Straight Story would have done even better if he hadn't been wrestled back into third early; a free-running type, he didn't seem too happy with that tactic and wasted some time pulling with his head up in the air. Perhaps it made no difference to the result, but he deserves another high-level opportunity.

Volcanic interlude: Last year, I'd thought that Chinchon was a real dark horse in the Man o' War, but after creeping up into contention along the inside, he flattened out and ended up fourth behind Gio Ponti. This summer, his form didn't strike me as strong heading into the UN, so I didn't expect that kind of scintillating performance from him at all.

In fact, Chinchon's probably improved since last year, but his progress was masked by a spring campaign that didn't go according to plan. After his effortless success in the Prix Exbury (Fr-G3) to start the season, he was supposed to return to Hong Kong for the April 25 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (HK-G1), a race in which he had finished a good fourth last season.

Then the Icelandic volcano erupted, and the ash cloud that wreaked havoc with European air travel prevented Chinchon from flying to Hong Kong. Had he been able to line up there, we would have gotten a better read on him. As a fall-back position, he was supplemented to the May 2 Prix Ganay (Fr-G1), where he was rank up with the pace before folding to sixth. Although Chinchon raced more characteristically in the June 6 Grand Prix de Chantilly (Fr-G2) next out, he was trapped in a pocket, might have had room for a moment, but had to snatch up and checked in a luckless fourth.

Might the volcano have been a blessing in disguise for Chinchon? Would the travel to Hong Kong, followed by the trip to the Jersey Shore, have been a bridge too far? In other words, was he fresher for this year's American visit precisely because he'd been at home in France all spring?

Whatever the contributing factors, the Chinchon at Monmouth was a different animal from the one Gio Ponti thrashed at Belmont last summer. Ideally, we'd get a rematch between the two, but at this point, the prospects are uncertain at best. Chinchon won't return before the Breeders' Cup -- if he even comes then. And if Chinchon shows up for the Turf (G1) at Churchill Downs, will Gio Ponti? Or will Gio Ponti roll the dice in another spot, as he did last year?

Regardless of Chinchon's future plans, one thing is sure: Europe's premier horsemen have noted well how a French Group 3/borderline Group 2 performer just dusted several American Grade 1 winners. The invading squadron for the Turf promises to have stronger credentials than those Chinchon brought to Monmouth.

Sacrifice: The July 4 American H. (G2) at Hollywood Park will long be remembered for the gallantry of GLOBAL HUNTER (Arg) (Jade Hunter), who literally pushed himself beyond the limit to defeat TEMPLE CITY (Dynaformer), then broke down right after the wire. He spared no effort, held nothing back, and gave his utmost to achieve the victory.

Besides the heartbreak for Global Hunter and his connections, my initial reaction was how sad that it should happen on the festive holiday, casting a pall over what should have been a jubilant July 4. But then, in some sort of free association in my mind,, his racing casualty served as a distant echo of the sacrifices of our American troops -- around the world and at home, throughout history and to our own very day. Freedom isn't free, and victory comes at a price. In that sense, his tragedy pointed to the deeper meaning of Independence Day.

Thankfully, Global Hunter is making a good recovery at the moment. Co-owners Shawn Turner and Monte Pyle, trainer A.C. Avila and jockey Brice Blanc have done all they could to save him, and his story could yet have a happy ending. Hopefully by this time next year, Global Hunter will be enjoying life as a stallion in his native Argentina.

On a more mundane level, the American proved that HYADES' (Aldebaran) runner-up effort in the Charles Whittingham H. (G1) was no fluke. On the cut-back in trip from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/8 miles, the Ben Cecil charge was disadvantaged by the slow pace, but still rallied boldly for third, just a half-length behind Global Hunter. The tempo would have been livelier if COMPARI (Redattore [Brz]) had run, instead of scratching in favor of the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1). That gambit didn't play out too well, and Compari will now reportedly be rested until Oak Tree.

Global Hunter, the reigning champion of the Eddie Read S. (G1), will be missed especially during next Saturday's running of the 1 1/8-mile test at Del Mar. Among those expected to line up are Hollywood Derby (G1) hero THE USUAL Q. T. (Unusual Heat), who regained the winning thread with a cozy allowance score on June 27 at Hollywood; VICTOR'S CRY (Street Cry [Ire]), last seen landing the Shoemaker Mile (G1) on Memorial Day; and in a late-breaking development just reported by Daily Racing Form, new import CROWDED HOUSE (GB) (Rainbow Quest), who will be turned over to Ben Cecil following the Eddie Read. Trained by Brian Meehan, Crowded House has been mightily disappointing since his coup in the 2008 Racing Post Trophy (Eng-G1). His only glimmer of life came during the Dubai International Racing Carnival this winter, so he might perk up in California. At any event, he's been miserable in Great Britain, and owner J. Paul Reddam is right to ship him out in hopes of a form reversal.

Plot twists: When I first noticed WHATSTHESCRIPT (Ire) (Royal Applause [GB]) on the Aqueduct worktab, I scoffed, thinking that it must be a mistake. Whatsthescript had been retired and was standing at stud at Tommy Town Thoroughbreds in California -- right? Not any more!

After serving his initial book of mares, the classy six-year-old was put back in training. Instead of returning to the Southern California circuit, where he reportedly suffered soft-tissue injuries on the synthetic surfaces, he was shipped to trainer Gary Contessa at Aqueduct, with its supply of good old-fashioned dirt.

As a longtime fan of Whatsthescript, I'm glad to have him back. He was a bona fide Grade 1 horse at his best, finishing third to Goldikova (Ire) (Anabaa) and Kip Deville from a bad draw in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Mile (G1), and placing in the past two runnings of the Eddie Read. Now he might get the chance to fill in that gap on his record.

In his first start back from stud, Whatsthescript closed well for third in last Saturday's Battlefield S. at Monmouth, 1 1/2 lengths adrift of VIOLON SACRE (Stravinsky). This was just the kind of encouraging return that he can build upon, possibly in the August 1 Oceanport S. (G3) at Monmouth or the Fourstardave H. (G2) at Saratoga on the same day. Should he venture to the Spa, he's likely to encounter COURT VISION (Gulch), who shortens up off a sixth in the Manhattan, and maybe CHEROKEE ARTIST (Cherokee Run), who bounced back to form with a good-looking allowance/optional claiming score at Belmont on July 2.

If Whatsthescript goes back to Monmouth, he'll probably get a rematch with Violon Sacre. A lightly-raced five-year-old who spent his career in France before joining Patrick Biancone this season, Violon Sacre has a winning attitude (eight wins from 14 starts) and is eligible to keep progressing.

I've got a soft spot for Violon Sacre. I had actually come across his name in the French results some time ago and remembered him -- not because he did anything spectacular, but because his dam, Histoire Sainte (Fr) (Kendor), cut quite a figure at my native Fair Grounds several years ago. She was trained by Steve Asmussen, who had to work around her difficult attitude and tactfully described her as a "French lady." Aside from her stakes victories, I can't forget the good-natured banter about how to pronounce her name. Fair Grounds fixture Mike Diliberto resorted to calling her "History Saint." Who would have guessed I'd be writing about her son almost a decade later?

Deja vu all over again: Fans are getting that sense every time TIZDEJAVU (Tiznow) sets foot on the Matt Winn Turf Course at Churchill Downs, where he boasts a five-for-six career mark. The Greg Fox trainee atoned for his only loss at that venue, a fifth in the 2009 Firecracker H. (G2), with a front-running victory in the same July 4 feature. Barreling straight to the front and rattling off demanding fractions, Tizdejavu slowed down late, but still held on well for a 1 1/2-length decision.

Now three-for-three in 2010, having captured an allowance/optional claimer at Arlington and the June 11 Opening Verse H. at Churchill, Tizdejavu looms as a horse-for-the-course for the Breeders' Cup Mile.

I'm compelled to mention that 2009 Kentucky Derby (G1) shocker MINE THAT BIRD (Birdstone) ran eighth in the Firecracker in his reappearance for new trainer D. Wayne Lukas. I understand that this turf debut was not his connections' preferred choice for a comeback, but for his sake, I hope that he doesn't wander onto the grass again.

O Canada: Woodbine hosted major stakes for the milers and the marathon set recently, and both proved to be formful affairs.

Up-and-coming miler GRAND ADVENTURE (Grand Slam) followed up on his triumph in the Connaught Cup (Can-G3) with a similarly smooth success in the June 27 King Edward S. (Can-G2). GET STORMY (Stormy Atlantic) couldn't cope with the early pace battle on the good ground, but Grand Adventure thrived on it. After applying pressure from his outside perch, he cruised to the front in impeccable style. Although defending champion RAHY'S ATTORNEY (Crown Attorney) ran right up to his best in pursuit, Grand Adventure was always finding enough to stay a comfortable length ahead. Rahy's Attorney, the 123-pound highweight, was spotting Grand Adventure five pounds. Nevertheless, the sky looks like the limit for the four-year-old Grand Adventure. He's only starting to reach his peak for Mark Frostad, and I suspect he'd beat Rahy's Attorney again at level weights. The September 19 Woodbine Mile (Can-G1) is his next major target; I'd love to see him cross the border for the Fourstardave along the way.

For the 12-furlong aficionados, the July 4 Singspiel was contested just two days after the death of the champion it commemorates. With Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip looking on, SPICE ROUTE (GB) (King's Best) put on an advertisement for the British Thoroughbred, dominating in his return from a six-month layoff. The Roger Attfield veteran maneuvered his way through the field under a beautiful ride by Mike Smith, cantered up into contention, inhaled SOLITAIRE (Victory Gallop), and drew off by 3 3/4 lengths while in hand. Spice Route will face tougher class tests down the road, but he couldn't have been more impressive. The runner-up in the 2008 Canadian International (Can-G1), Spice Route figures to play a role in this year's edition on October 16. The August 22 Sky Classic (Can-G2) and the September 19 Northern Dancer Turf (Can-G1) are the natural stepping stones.

Million Preview Day: Our next edition will focus on the Arlington Million, including assessments of Saturday's Million Preview Day at Arlington. JUST AS WELL (A.P. Indy) returns to defend his title in the Arlington H. (G3), the prep for the Million itself, from such challengers as GENERAL QUARTERS (Sky Mesa) and MARSH SIDE (Gone West). The American Derby (G2), the prep for the Secretariat S. (G1), is highlighted by WORKIN FOR HOPS (City Zip) and GLEAM OF HOPE (City Zip).

Saturday's $600,000 Virginia Derby (G2), however, came up vastly stronger than the $200,000 American Derby -- as exemplified by PADDY O'PRADO (El Prado [Ire]), who aims to be the heir apparent to Kitten's Joy; INTERACTIF (Broken Vow); STATELY VICTOR (Ghostzapper); and KRYPTON (Rock Hard Ten). The Virginia Derby therefore promises to yield major contenders for the Secretariat.

Although it's still early days as far as Million probables are concerned, Gio Ponti, Winchester and Take the Points are the logical domestic candidates, other than those running in the Arlington 'Cap. The European challenge is expected to be led by STOTSFOLD (GB) (Barathea [Ire]), a bang-up third in last year's Million, who will try to extend his winning streak to three in the July 24 York S. (Eng-G2) en route to Arlington. Other possible international raiders are still in flux, but a surprising name was floated this week on sportinglife.com: the talented three-year-old ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL (Elusive Quality), who was forced to miss the June 6 French Derby (Fr-G1) with a setback. This optimistic rumor contradicts previous reporting, which suggested that he'd be sidelined until the fall, but the John Dunlop trainee would be a fascinating addition to the mix.


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