For the past year or so, Daily Racing Form has featured an occasional freestyle "Catching Up With” column wherein a reporter writes about an individual that piques his or her interest. Me, I like doing horses … and believe me when I say, I’m selective.
Months before he passed in 2013, I spent a precious morning at Overbrook Farm with two-time leading American sire and broodmare sire Storm Cat. Then, on the eve of relocating from Kentucky to New York last spring, my husband, Mark, and I paid our respects to perennial powerhouse A.P. Indy at Lane’s End. Beyond that – in terms of stallions, at least – what was left for an encore? Oh, but I knew.
Back in the Bluegrass for the first time in nearly a year this past April, mixing business with pleasure, we stopped in at Shane Ryan’s Castleton Lyons, a special operation on so many levels. For one, it is head-spinningly gorgeous, with that medieval-style stone tower dominating the landscape by day and illuminating the fields by night. For another, it is historic like few other Thoroughbred nurseries, a place where champions have roamed in notable numbers for well over a century now. And perhaps most importantly, its past and current owners have long paid it forward well to the sport they love, most recently offering up an annual bounty equal to that of the Pulitzer Prize to honor excellence in book-length race writing.
And fourth … Castleton Lyons is home to Gio Ponti.
Thus, when invited to stay on site to celebrate the crowning of the eighth winner of the $10,000 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, the Simons jumped at the chance.
Soundness is a virtue
"Greatness” in any arena is an abstraction, as elusive to grasp as a dandelion seed spinning in a stiff breeze. I had sensed its intangible essence when standing alongside old Storm Cat in the waning weeks of his long and noble life and had known it the instant A.P. Indy flashed that defiant white-rimmed eye my way, warning, perhaps, that a friendly shoulder slap might not be wise.
Ah, but Gio Ponti … my beau ideal of a modern racehorse. What feelings would he elicit when at last I met him?
In the world of Thoroughbreds, the term "great” is easily batted about but hard to quantify. What exactly is it? A high turn of speed with the ability to sustain it? Versatility over different surfaces at assorted distances under a variety of track conditions? A supreme progenitor? Or my own particular favorite: one who could navigate shark-infested waters at the highest levels of competition – through multiple seasons – and come out the other end unscathed? How many like that do you find these days? Here’s a hint: not many.
Renowned 19th-century German horseman Count Georg von Lehndorff famously said: "There are three all-important things to consider in breeding Thoroughbreds. The first is soundness. The second is soundness. The third is soundness.” Somewhere along the way, however, that once-revered, rock-solid commodity got kicked to the curb in favor of others … flash-in-the-pan precociousness; hypersonic short-fused speed; fashionista auction-style pedigrees.
So, whatever happened to good, old-fashioned Seabiscuit soundness? John Henry soundness? Kelso soundness? Those reliable and beloved champions of old, who danced every dance on the card and filled the postman’s bags with fan mail week after week, month after month, year after year?
Some might suggest that soundness, as a virtue, has vanished like the passenger pigeon, but the good news is that we live now in a recyclable world. Just as platform shoes and leggings have returned to vogue, soundness may be returning as a desirable commodity in modern Thoroughbreds, right alongside its sexy siblings, "speed” and "precocity.” If so, few top-drawer Thoroughbreds would embody it more fully today than Gio Ponti.
Brains, beauty, and brawn
Book Award festivities past, we found ourselves one morning in a Castleton Lyons SUV with commercial manager Stuart Fitzgibbon, rolling past the barn that once housed 19th- and early 20th-century Hall of Fame champions Domino, Commando, and Peter Pan … past the restored pre-Civil War clapboard slave cabin, and ivy-covered Castleman Hall (where lucky guests reside) … along by the late Dr. Ryan’s scene-stealing gothic tower. The endpoint was a paddock, several acres in size, freshly sprouted with early grass.
A stallion grazed mid-pasture as soft rain fell. When the newly arrived visitors spilled out of the car, his head shot up, and he glared hard for a moment in their general direction.
"You’re not bringing me in now,” Fitzgibbon growled, projecting words upon the horse from across the field. "No bloody way.”
After some contemplation, Gio Ponti began drifting toward us, hesitating here and there to investigate matters. Grade 1 winner Justin Phillip in the adjoining paddock was an object of brief interest, as were an assortment of other sights and sounds that only the big bay could denote.
As we waited, Fitzgibbon pointed to a nearby enclosure.
"When we pose him over there for visitors, he’ll just stand and look out at something in the distance. Like a model on a runway … so photogenic.”
As if to demonstrate, the three-time Eclipse Award winner halted about 20 yards out and struck what seemed a carefully orchestrated pose – a nearly 16.2-hand purely alpha male, looking like he’d stepped straight from an 18th-century Stubbs painting, not an atomic particle amiss, projecting a clear-eyed look-of-eagles gaze into the depths of … what? Then, onward again, pausing here to strike the ground with an impatient hoof, as if drilling for oil; there, to flash a wary glance at Justin Phillip, to ensure he was still where he ought to be; another quick grab of fresh spring grass. Ever throwing off sparks of energy, even at a stone-cold standstill.
"I’m not a horse-huggin’ type, but this one really is smart,” Fitzgibbon reflected as Gio Ponti stopped once more to peruse his kingdom. "He knows exactly what’s going on around him. He was smart in training and he’s smart at stud. Cool and inquisitive. They’re territorial. They have their ways. Gio Ponti’s king of the castle. Likes to be first out in the morning, first in in the afternoon. That’s how he does things. Malibu Moon was the same when he was here – it was his terrain.”
Any fan not asleep at the wheel this past half-decade will know Gio Ponti’s name and deeds, for they were emblazoned in letters of fire across racing’s sky. He won major races in five straight seasons, during three of which he was one of the world’s very best. In an era when top Thoroughbreds are shunted off to stud at the crack of a heel or pop of a splint, Gio Ponti remained atop his game through age 6 and could have gone on from there. And in a world of one-dimensional specialists, he was successful from sprints to classic distances, on grass and synthetics, uncorked the occasional killer mile, captured bi-coastal Grade 1 races, banked nearly $6.2 million, and outran 62 Grade or Group 1 winners, including champions from all over the globe. A stakes winner at 2, a genuine star at 3, like the finest of Bordeaux wines, he got better with the passage of time.
Though not always best on a given day – Zenyatta and Goldikova informed him otherwise on occasion – Gio Ponti never backed down, never spit it out, never said "no” to a heartfelt challenge. "Quit” was simply not a part of his toolkit, and for that, I adored him like the giddiest of racing fans.
"He hit every single target,” Fitzgibbon marveled, shaking his head, still in wonderment three years post-retirement. "Unbelievable for any racehorse but especially one who raced as long as he did and took us all those places.”
Why so long – five years, 29 starts, 12 wins, 11 placings – when that "style” went out with the 1960s? Two words: Shane Ryan. With a once-in-a-lifetime horse as sound as the proverbial brass bell, who loved to run as much as his sporting owner loved running him, why not?
Like sire, like foals
Gio Ponti appeared fence-side after several minutes of punctuated perambulations and thrust his finely carved, Munnings-esque head over the shrub-lined top rail. He favored me with an intense, inquiring look – eye to eye. I disappointed him.
"He likes peppermints,” Fitzgibbon informed, at which point I mentally smacked my forehead; we’d come unprepared. "And wait ’til you hear this: organic carrots. He knows the difference. There’s a certain type, [office manager] Betsy [Hager] will tell you. You can’t get them from Kroger or Wal-Mart but some other place, farther away. Those are the carrots for Gio Ponti.”
And no. They do not require peeling.
When treats were not forthcoming, the stallion’s restless nature soon propelled him onward, and as he departed, I felt a creeping sense of déjŕ vu, something I had previously intuited … perhaps at Overbrook?
Fitzgibbon looked on as the champion slipped away, on legs as clean and smooth as they night he was born, clearly, a view he never tired of.
"You know, they all walk just like him.”
"His foals. Gio Ponti and his foals, they walk with great … purpose. As if they know they’re going someplace and they’re going to get there fast. They all look like him. Different colors, but they have his physical shape. They’re stamped by him. You can spot a Gio Ponti a mile off. The way they look, the way they move.”
Making a stallion
The son of Tale of the Cat was embraced by breeders from the outset. He covered 148 mares in 2012 and his book was full by Christmas. (He also stood a Southern Hemisphere season in Australia later that year.) Selectivity? A thing about that.
"We were a bit concerned he might be labeled [just] a ‘turf sire,’ ” Fitzgibbon said, "which would be fair enough because most of his best races were on turf. So we bought some dirt mares ourselves since many of our own had come from Europe. We augmented with rock-solid mares by Unbridled’s Song, Distorted Humor, like that. Then when submissions were coming in, I kept an eye out to make sure he wasn’t breeding 100-something turf mares. After a few weeks, I could see he was getting his fair share of main-track mares.”
Castleton Lyons has supported him well with farm mares each season thus far. Ryan also has acquired a number of non-homebred Gio Ponti babies at auction and even some mares in foal to him.
"There’s no point in standing a stallion unless you believe in him,” Fitzgibbon said. "It’s a multistep process with a stud. You can’t just stand him and make the breeder do it all.”
Year two brought a 113-mare book, then in season three (2014), when many stallions experience a numerical decline, an uncharacteristic jump to 150 on a flood tide of 300 applications.
"He was actually more popular than in the first year, which makes no sense. It’s not the norm, at all. Others might have kept accepting mares – and Gio Ponti could have bred more – but we were comfortable with 150. We wanted to do right by the horse and by the breeders.”
How to explain the spike in interest?
Again … those foals.
"They marched out there and made him the leading freshman sire [of weanlings sold] at Keeneland November,” Fitzgibbon explained. "They were very well accepted by pinhookers, who gave good prices for them. They sell back to top buyers in the States, so they’re clearly expecting big prices later this year, and they were not just buying ‘turf’ foals.”
Last year, Gio Ponti weanlings averaged $125,778, 6.3 times stud fee, with a healthy $120,000 median. He has two yearlings cataloged for next week’s Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling auction and five for Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga sale of selected yearlings in early August.
"We had seen 70 or 80 of his foals around this time a year ago, and we knew they were good. Plus, we had a great bunch ourselves on the farm. Then, when they got to the sales, they just blew everybody away. People love an athletic, agile horse, and he is producing that horse.”
One hundred and seventeen years ago this summer, James R. Keene’s legendary Domino died of spinal meningitis at age 6, leaving just 20 named foals on what was then called Castleton Farm. Though gone too soon, he left behind a genetic legacy that would endure the test of time.
Among his descendants in 2014 is Gio Ponti, who may well one day join him in the Racing Hall of Fame. The modern three-time champion resides now in the same historic stallion barn and grazes the same limestone-infused pastureland as did the Black Whirlwind of America’s long-ago Gilded Age … and carries in his extended lineage no fewer than 56 crosses of that single glorious ancestor. A proud heritage and fateful symmetry, indeed.