The Hall of Fame Case of Gio Ponti

I have an annual ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. It’s one of the biggest honors that anyone covering racing can receive, and voting is a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

This year, I voted for all four of the finalists who will be enshrined in Saratoga Springs this summer. That list includes three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova and jockeys Javier Castellano, Victor Espinoza, and Garrett Gomez.

One finalist who did not make my ballot was Gio Ponti, one of the top turf horses in the U.S. from 2009 through 2011. Simply put, I just didn’t think Gio Ponti was a Hall of Famer. This was in stark contrast to the views of several people I respect, including TVG’s Darin Zoccali, TwinSpires’s Ed DeRosa, fellow Saratogian alum Will Springstead, and Horse Racing Nation’s Brian Zipse, who didn’t vote for Gio Ponti but saw him as a very tough cut from his eventual ballot.

Due to this disagreement, I’ve gotten in several very animated discussions about the topic, and the only way I know how to resolve this is by writing way, way, way too many words about it. As such, here we are, debating the Hall of Fame merits of Gio Ponti through a multiple-step process. As a heads-up, if it turns out that this winds up being a popular piece, I have no problem analyzing the cases of other finalists and other horses, trainers, or jockeys who will be up for election in the next few years, so let me know what you think.

WHY VOTE FOR GIO PONTI?

Gio Ponti’s main strength is his longevity. He won stakes races in five consecutive seasons, competed in four Breeders’ Cup events, and captured seven Grade 1 races. He raced 29 times, and finished first or second on 22 occasions while racking up more than $6.1 million in earnings, much of which came following a pair of second-place finishes in Breeders’ Cup races (the 2009 Classic and the 2010 Mile). Those races were won by Hall of Famers Zenyatta and Goldikova.

WHY VOTE AGAINST GIO PONTI?

He failed to win a single Breeders’ Cup race despite multiple opportunities, and he came along during a time where the American turf division was, to put it mildly, extremely weak. Additionally, while he was voted Champion Grass Horse in 2010, that honor came after a campaign where he won just two races from seven starts, and he only won once in six 2011 starts to boot. What kind of an indictment is it on his competition when the horse deemed America’s best on turf lost 10 of his final 13 races?

Admittedly, there’s no shame in running second to Zenyatta and Goldikova, or even Cape Blanco, who dusted him a few times in 2011 and could have been Horse of the Year had an injury not robbed him of a chance to compete in the Breeders’ Cup. However, looks at his career record also reveal losses to forgettable horses like Mission Approved, Debussy, Winchester, and Karelian. This isn’t a case of a horse like Alydar or Easy Goer, where repeated losses to Hall of Famers were soothed by dominant wins over most of their peers. Gio Ponti had a stellar 2009 season (one that included four straight Grade 1 wins at three different tracks), but voters held their noses when giving him the 2010 award, and his 2011 campaign was nothing to write home about.

HISTORICAL COMPARISONS

In debating Gio Ponti’s merits, I actually had one Gio Ponti supporter say the words, “Stats are for losers.” I could crack wise about how said supporter clearly went to the Donald Trump School of Debate, but instead, I’m going to use Gio Ponti’s resume as a comparison point for other horses, so as to illustrate the validity of his Hall of Fame candidacy. Admittedly, there are times where stats don’t tell the full story of what a horse accomplished, but many times, a blind comparison of accomplishments can shine a brighter light onto a given situation such as this one.

Gio Ponti
Career Record: 29-12-10-1
Earnings: $6,169,800
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Seven)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Zero (Four)

Horse A
Career Record: 31-23-2-0
Earnings: $7,552,920
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 19 (11)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Two (Three)

Horse B
Career Record: 25-14-8-0
Earnings: $2,515,289
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Three)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Two (Three)

Horse C
Career Record: 30-14-7-2
Earnings: $2,293,384
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Two)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Five)

Horse D
Career Record: 29-13-6-4
Earnings: $2,321,751
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Nine (Three)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Five)

For purposes of this comparison, I deliberately chose horses that fit Gio Ponti’s career profile. Namely, they raced for sustained periods of time, mainly in graded stakes company, and they appeared in multiple Breeders’ Cup events not named the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Gio Ponti ran second in that race in 2009 when that race was run over a synthetic surface, but comparing him to horses that ran in that race multiple times wouldn’t be fair to him.

Horse A, as most of you probably figured out, is Wise Dan. On credentials, Wise Dan towers over the rest of these horses, including Gio Ponti. Naysayers will counter that he doubles as the main horse of substance that Gio Ponti beat. That matchup came in the 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. However, Wise Dan wasn’t quite WISE DAN yet. From 2012 through 2014, Wise Dan lost twice in 17 races, a stretch that included back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Mile wins and six Eclipse Awards. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he comes up for election, and it’s not because of his pre-2012 form.

Horse B is Lure. Lure was arguably the top turf miler of the 1990’s, and while his earnings don’t stack up with those of Wise Dan or Gio Ponti, it must be pointed out that he simply wasn’t running for those kinds of purses during his racing career. Additionally, some of the non-Grade 1 races he won would absolutely be considered Grade 1 races today. For these reasons, Lure had to wait nearly two decades to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame (as much as I love the Hall of Fame and everything it stands for, Lure probably should’ve gone in sooner).

Horse C is Kona Gold. Kona Gold was a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year, and like Gio Ponti, he didn’t get in. Kona Gold is similar to Lure in that he was a victim of the time period in which he ran. Many sprint races that are considered Grade 1 events now weren’t given that billing or the appropriate purse money during Kona Gold’s heyday, and he suffered for that. A scan of his career, though, also reveals some parallels to Gio Ponti. Kona Gold also had one dominant campaign, which came in 2000 when he won five of six starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Like Gio Ponti, he stayed on for several seasons after that, running good races but none that quite channeled the form he showed in his best year. I don’t see a camp championing Kona Gold’s candidacy, and certainly not a camp that’s done so as loudly as the one backing Gio Ponti!

Horse D is, I feel, the most damning comparison with regard to Gio Ponti’s Hall of Fame candidacy. This is Obviously, winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. I want to stress that I am not saying that Obviously is a better horse than Gio Ponti, so please, don’t twist my words around. However, look at the accomplishments side-by-side. Does Gio Ponti’s dwarf Obviously’s? I don’t think it does. Yes, the seven Grade 1 wins are a substantial advantage to Obviously’s three, and the disparity in career earnings is noteworthy. However, Obviously has a Breeders’ Cup win to his credit and was also third behind Wise Dan and Animal Kingdom in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile. That has to count for something.

Gio Ponti is a better horse than Obviously. Is his resume THAT much better? I don’t think so, and I feel like that’s a necessary acid test.

THE VERDICT

Gio Ponti was a fun horse to root for. Any horse that finishes in the top two in 22 of 29 career starts deserves consideration for racing’s highest honor, and he’s certainly a worthy finalist.

However, the quality of horses Gio Ponti ran against must be considered. If he had dominated those horses and fell only to the likes of Zenyatta and Goldikova, I would be much more inclined to vote for him. However, with the exception of one dominant campaign, he wasn’t the caliber of horse that deserves enshrinement amongst the greatest in the history of the sport. He was the best of a very bad group in 2010, and he won just once in 2011. It takes more than one great season to put a horse in the Hall of Fame.

VERDICT: NOT A HALL OF FAMER

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