12/31/2004 12:00AM

Commentator impresses Zito in Hal's Hope drill

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MIAMI - Trainer Nick Zito was all smiles after watching the last of his horses work over the Gulfstream Park track Friday morning.

Among them was his undefeated New York-bred gelding Commentator, whom Zito is readying for his 2005 debut in Gulfstream's Grade 3 Hal's Hope Handicap on Saturday. The Hal's Hope may serve as a stepping-stone to the Grade 1 Donn Handicap four weeks later.

Commentator didn't work particularly fast, especially compared to most of the others in Zito's barn, completing five furlongs in 1:03 with a six-furlong gallop-out in 1:15 and change. But it was the way he worked that had Zito so excited.

"Did you see how he moved out there?" said Zito. "And he really flew that last eighth of a mile. He could go out there and work fast, and if I was just training him up to the Donn without having a prep race that's what we might do. But I don't need him to do that going into the Hal's Hope. The way he worked and finished this morning is the way he usually works."

Commentator is perfect in five starts after finally launching his career Aug. 9 at Saratoga, winning his races by an average margin of better than eight lengths. Among those victories was a seven-length triumph over Eurosilver in Keeneland's seven-furlong Perryville Stakes and a one-mile allowance victory, worth a 112 Beyer Speed Figure, in his 3-year-old finale at Churchill Downs on Thanksgiving Day.

Among Zito's other workers on Friday was Seek Gold, who concluded his 2004 campaign with a flashy second-place finish behind Saint Liam in Churchill's Grade 2 Clark Handicap. Seek Gold worked five-eighths in 1:00.

"Did you see his race in the Clark? He acted up for about three minutes behind the gate, dropped about 25 lengths behind the field, then still finished strong enough to beat Perfect Drift and be second behind Saint Liam," said Zito. "His last two races were great but I don't want to rush him back because I don't want him to bounce and it's a long year. He worked great and did it on his own this morning. Right now my target for him is probably the Gulfstream Park Handicap."

Saltzman puts down his mike

Sunday will mark the end of an era when track announcer Phil Saltzman calls his last race at Calder.

Saltzman, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, has spent 21 years behind the microphone at Calder, where his call of "and they're not going to get him today" has been his trademark.

Saltzman has also owned horses during that span, some in partnership with former Miami Dolphin and Fox broadcaster Bryan Cox.

Saltzman, 67, began his career in racing in 1974 as a handicapper for the now-defunct Miami News. He became the resident handicapper on the Larry King Show in Miami in 1978 then spun off his own show on WINZ from 1978 to 1984. He took over the microphone here permanently in 1984 at the suggestion of former Calder president Kenny Noe Jr.

"Phil is not only synonymous with Calder but he's an original," said Mike Cronin, Calder's vice president and director of marketing. "And his race calls are so good because he's a fan himself and calls the races in a way a fan would like to hear them."

Bobby Newman will replace Saltzman when the track reopens in April.

Horse pays record $97 to show

The show payoff of $97.80 on My Friend Deke in Friday's first race was a record at Calder, demolishing the old mark of $52.80 established nearly 20 years earlier.

The record payoff came about after Passive Resistance finished off the board as the 2-5 favorite. My Friend Deke, a first-time starter trained by Frank Gomez, won the maiden special weight race. He paid only $42.60 to win. In addition to the large show payoff on the winner, runner-up Touch for Luck returned $34 to show while third-place finisher Nacascolo paid $35.20.

New distances for dirt and turf races

The ongoing renovation will bring innumerable changes to Gulfstream Park, including several new race distances. A 7 1/2-furlong dirt race for $50,000 claiming horses is in the condition book for opening day, while two 7 1/2-furlong turf races are in the first condition book: a $32,000 claiming race on Jan. 13, and the Lure Stakes on Jan. 15.

The wider circumferences of the turf and dirt tracks have led to the new distances; the turf course, formerly seven furlongs, is now a mile, while the main track, formerly a mile, is now 1 1/8 miles. The main-track chute from where 7 1/2-furlong races will start is just a tad short to permit one-turn-mile races.

There are no one-turn turf races in the first condition book, but there will be some later at this meet.

The Feb. 5 Hutcheson Stakes, formerly run at seven furlongs, probably is the most noteworthy stakes to get a change in distance. It now will be run at 7 1/2 furlongs.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee