08/08/2005 12:00AM

Commentator's early zip said it all


NEW YORK - Most of the great match races in Thoroughbred history have proven that speed is the essential ingredient for success. When Man o' War trounced Sir Barton in their match race in 1920, Man o' War controlled the pace. In his famous upset of War Admiral in the 1938 Pimlico Special, Seabiscuit shot right to the front. When Alsab upset Whirlaway in their match race in 1942, he went wire to wire, as did Armed when he crushed Assault in their match race in 1947. And when Nashua beat Swaps in their match race in 1955, he did so on the front end, and it was an upset, even though Swaps was not at his best physically.

This came to mind after Commentator upset Saint Liam in Saturday's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. This Whitney was not a match race because six other horses also broke from the starting gate. But for all intents and purposes, it was as close to a match race as a race can get without actually being one. Commentator and Saint Liam quickly isolated themselves from the rest of the field and never let another competitor reach contention.

Commentator is the one that turned Saturday's Whitney into a virtual match race, and he and jockey Gary Stevens did so by employing a tactic that is not often seen any more in distance races of any caliber. Commentator, with his speed, went out and bottomed out the field. After waiting a bit on the first turn to clear the field and to keep Saint Liam toward his inside (Saint Liam does not like to run inside of horses), Commentator went off and set a pace so demanding that Saint Liam and the rest of the field had to work hard in the run down the backstretch just to stay in the same zip code. The idea was to make the opposition work hard early and take some, if not all, of the starch out of their late kicks. For Commentator on Saturday, it was an idea that worked.

Commentator cut out a half-mile fraction of 46.41 seconds and a six-furlong fraction of 1:09.76, which put Commentator some five lengths ahead of Saint Liam and Saint Liam anywhere from six to 10 lengths in front of the next closest pursuer. These fractions stood in stark contrast to the first couple of weeks of the Saratoga meet, which had slow fractions and final times in two-turn races on dirt. The three previous two-turn stakes on fast tracks were the Jim Dandy, the Go for Wand, and the filly division of the New York Stallion Series. The half-mile and six-furlong fractions were 47.38 and 1:11.54 in the Jim Dandy, 47.04 and 1:11.45 in the Go for Wand, and 48.44 and 1:14.11 in the filly division of the New York Stallion Series.

Of course, it is always tricky comparing fractions and final times from races run on different days without taking into account the relative speed of the racing surface. But the point is that Commentator did some serious running Saturday to set those kind of fractions and still hold off a horse like Saint Liam by a neck, even if the track may have been kind to speed. The big question now is, how will this style play this fall at Belmont Park?

And if the track Saturday at Saratoga was slightly kind to speed, it should take nothing away from Leave Me Alone's dominating victory in the Test Stakes. There was certainly no overwhelming track bias, and Leave Me Alone absolutely obliterated a solid field of 3-year-old fillies. She shot right to the front, toyed with her field through a half mile in 45.46, and then pulled the rug out from under her field, turning this Test into a quiz of name the winning margin (the answer: 7 3/4 lengths). The victory, combined with her score in the Azalea Breeders' Cup, establishes Leave Me Alone as the best 3-year-old filly sprinter in the nation.

Commentator's winning 123 Beyer Speed Figure in the Whitney gives the 3-year-old class a goal to shoot for to be competitive in the major fall races. With Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex's schedule in a state of flux because of his surgery - it is fair to question exactly how he will make it to the Breeders' Cup Classic in something near peak form - there was extra attention paid to Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park to see if the 3-year-olds in training have what it takes to challenge their very fast elders.

Roman Ruler's victory over Sun King in the Haskell was notable because it was a solid score around two turns over good company at a time when he had to prove that he could do just that: win a meaningful race at the expense of good competition going two turns. The feeling you got from watching the Haskell is that Roman Ruler was better than his win margin would suggest and that he has the capability to improve some more over the next few months. That may be critical because the other feeling you got watching the Haskell is that these 3-year-olds - leaving aside Afleet Alex and perhaps the Bellamy Road we saw in the Wood Memorial - are going to have to improve a lot to compete with Saint Liam and Commentator.