It would be unfair to describe Gio Ponti's 2010 campaign as disappointing thus far because, really, he has already produced the kind of year most trainers would happily accept for any horse in their barn.
Were the son of Tale of the Cat like most of his brethren on the racetrack, a Grade I win and more than $1.1 million in earnings in five starts for this season would not be viewed as falling a bit short.
But expectations are great for Gio Ponti, a dual Eclipse Award winner last season. Still, the respect the bay 5-year-old horse commands was evident Wednesday when only five foes were entered against him in Saturday's Grade I, $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.
The Shadwell Turf Mile is one of five Grade I races during Keeneland's opening weekend of its fall meet, which kicks off Friday with a card featuring the Grade I Darley Alcibiades for 2-year-old fillies going 11⁄16 miles.
This time a year ago, Gio Ponti already had four Grade I wins — including the Arlington Million — en route to becoming the first horse since the legendary John Henry to be named champion turf male and champion older male in the same season.
Although Castleton Lyons' homebred defended his crown in the Grade I Man o' War Stakes in July, the winner's circle has proven more elusive this year. Along with that victory were runner-up finishes in the Tampa Bay Stakes, Manhattan Handicap and Arlington Million and a fourth-place run in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March.
A bad year? Hardly. Frustrating? Maybe a little.
"While it was disappointing to lose some races this year, we feel there have been legitimate excuses for those defeats at the Grade I level," Shane Ryan, president of Castleton Lyons, said. "We believe that granted normal racing luck, he could well have accumulated two more Grade I wins in 2010 as he was only beaten an aggregate total of one length in the Manhattan and the Million."
Trained by Christophe Clement, Gio Ponti ended his 2009 season by finishing second to undefeated champion Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic over Santa Anita Park's synthetic surface. Which Breeders' Cup race he ends up in this year, though, could hinge on this weekend.
While the Classic's 11/4-mile distance is in Gio Ponti's wheelhouse, this year's Breeders' Cup is being held at Churchill Downs on conventional dirt — a surface he has never run on.
With the Breeders' Cup Turf's 11/2-mile distance considered too long, Gio Ponti is prepping in the Shadwell with designs on possibly tackling two-time defending race winner Goldikova in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
"Gio Ponti is such a game, consistent and versatile horse ... so a tilt at the Classic will be considered carefully," Ryan said. "At this level you have to take on the world's best, and while holding the utmost respect for Goldikova we would look forward to taking her on if we end up in the Mile."
Gio Ponti has taken three of the four starts he has tried at 8 furlongs or longer, including the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap last March.
A winner of 10 of 21 lifetime starts and more than $4.3 million in career earnings, Gio Ponti also has won on the Keeneland turf, capturing the 2007 Bourbon Stakes in his second career start.
"Gio Ponti, he's an impressive horse," said Tom Bush, trainer of improving Get Stormy whom he will saddle in the Shadwell.
"We're running against a champion so it is a very big step for us."