Their Way: Gio Ponti and Winchester

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Christophe Lorieul was in the paddock at Arlington Park, putting the saddle on two-time male turf champion Gio Ponti for the Grade I Arlington Million. Half a continent away, the horse’s stablemate Winchester roared down the stretch to win the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga.

And Lorieul missed it.

That’s the price you pay when your barn includes two of the best turf horses in the world.

They’re just two stalls in a line of 25. Gio Ponti stands in the back waiting for his groom and some leg wraps. Four doors down, Winchester greets visitors from over his yoke screen, pretending to munch hay. Around them, work gets done – horses head to the track, others walk the ring outside, still others stroll the shedrow and dozens move past on the Oklahoma track.

They’re essentially neighbors, occupying slots 1 and 1A (you decide the order) in the Saratoga barn of Lorieul’s boss, trainer Christophe Clement. Saturday, Winchester won the Sword Dancer and Gio Ponti finished second to Irish raider Cape Blanco in the Arlington Million.

Racing fans may lament the lack of longevity when it comes to top horses, but consider these two warriors.

Gio Ponti, 6, has won back-to-back Eclipse Awards and earned more than $5.6 million for owner Castleton Lyons. He’s 11-for-27 lifetime with 10 seconds. Winchester, also 6, counts four Grade I triumphs among his six career wins for owners/breeders Diana and Bert Firestone. Excluding two tries in the Dubai World Cup (fourth and fifth), Gio Ponti has finished in the top three 15 consecutive times. Winchester has been fourth or better in his last 13 – at the highest levels in racing.

They’re the best distance turf horses in the country (though West Coast phenom Acclamation may have a claim) and annually tackle the world’s best at Arlington, in Dubai or in the Breeders’ Cup.

And they’re in the same barn.

“It’s amazing, they’ve been so good to us,” said Lorieul. “It just goes to show you that if you give them the time, take care of them, do the work, older horses can keep going, can keep running at that top level.”

“They’re always there, they work hard for their money,” said Clement stable exercise rider John West. “It’s great to be a part of it. When you have nice horses like that in the barn, all you think about is getting to work. The reason you stay with an outfit like this or any of the other good barns is nice horses, to have nice horses to work with. I would have quit a few years ago, found a regular job, if it wasn’t for nice horses.”

Lorieul regularly rides Gio Ponti, champion male turf horse of 2009 and 2010, and gets on Winchester when the stable transfers to Saratoga. Two classy 6-year-olds turf horses in the same barn? Ridden by the same person in the morning? They must be alike, right?

“No, not at all,” he said. “Winchester is truly an older horse, he’s very smart and knows what he’s doing. He can be tough in the stall. The key to riding him is you can’t tell him what to do. It’s must be his idea. He has good days and some not-so-good days.”

Gio Ponti is more straightforward, the professional.

“He’s more of a gentleman, never a problem,” Lorieul said. “He’s a lot easier to ride.”

West, who rode Winchester while Lorieul was in Chicago with Gio Ponti, echoed the opinions.

“You try to change Winchester, you end up with a little dispute,” he said. “With horses, every day is a progression. You try to teach them that they can do better each day, that they can learn, that they can improve. It’s probably a little like teaching school.”

And Gio Ponti and Winchester are at the top of the class.

“They both give what they have,” said Lorieul. “It might not be their ground, might not be their day, might not be their race, but they will try. Is it us? We help, but I don’t think so;  it’s the way they are.”