08/10/2009 12:00AM

Father Time dims a bright star

Tom Keyser
Bullsbay (3) overtakes tiring pacesetter Commentator, foiling his bid for a record-tying third win in the Whitney Handicap.

NEW YORK - It was sporting for owner Tracy Farmer to keep Commentator in training this year at age 8 so that this brittle but immensely talented gelding could have a shot at joining Hall of Famers Kelso and Discovery as the only three-time winners of the Whitney Handicap. But Commentator showed last fall when he blew an easy lead for the first time in his life as the 2-5 favorite in the Clark Handicap that he was already in inevitable decline. So it was not a surprise to see Commentator come up short Saturday in pursuit of his third Whitney, although he did run well to finish third, beaten three lengths after setting a solid pace under some pressure.

It was interesting, however, to read some of the post-Whitney comments from the Commentator camp.

"I'd say run him more," jockey John Velazquez told the New York Racing Association press staff. "Maybe because he didn't win, a lot of people will disagree, but I thought he ran a great race."

Trainer Nick Zito has had to deal with Commentator's physical issues for years and has done some of his best work keeping him effective at a high level for so long.

"It is my wish to retire him," Zito said. "I don't want him running in those New York-bred races. He's Commentator."

Zito, not surprisingly, won out. Commentator was retired Sunday morning. And while I wouldn't have minded seeing Commentator do his thing in a few New York-bred stakes, I totally understand. Unlike Zito, I didn't have to work to keep Commentator sound all these years and hold my breath every time he ran.

As for Whitney winner Bullsbay, who scored as the longest shot on the board, comments were made afterward about how good his form was prior to a poor effort on Cushion Track in the Hollywood Gold Cup. I guess that's all in the eye of the beholder. In his close fourth in the Stephen Foster, he finished behind horses who had worse trips than he did, and when he won the Alysheba, he scraped paint on a profoundly rail-biased track.

As we celebrate Commentator's longevity, it seems only right that we do the same for Zenyatta, the champion who got up in the last step to remain undefeated in Sunday's Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. In the most traditional sense, Zenyatta's win was not impressive, as she just nipped a mare who in her last start finished fifth of six as the 3-5 favorite in a third-level allowance race. Let's be honest, if Zenyatta ran the same race she ran Sunday against Rachel Alexandra, it wouldn't be good enough to win. But in another, very real sense, what Zenyatta did Sunday was impressive. It is a reflection of what Zenyatta is made of and a testament to the abilities of her trainer, John Shirreffs, that this mare has maintained winning form for the last 21 months.

Have to give Gio Ponti, popular winner of Saturday's Arlington Million, lots of credit for compiling an impressive four-race Grade 1-stakes winning streak. His streak was forged in Southern California, New York, and now the Midwest, and at distances from eight to 11 furlongs. Gio Ponti is the top U.S. turf male right now by a long way. But while this is not meant as a knock, when Einstein and Presious Passion failed to fire Saturday, the field left for Gio Ponti to beat was not exactly of top caliber, although runner-up Just as Well is improving.

This was Einstein's second subpar race at Arlington, so maybe it's just not his track. Presious Passion might have not liked the off turf, but I've come to think that he might be at his best on tighter-turned turf courses than Arlington's.

Oh yes, I will be expecting a correction in the official chart of the Million. There's no way Gio Ponti was four lengths in front at the quarter pole.

Going into the Beverly D. on Saturday at Arlington, I thought Dynaforce was done dealing after the way she ran in her first two starts this year. But on the kind of off turf she clearly loves and apparently moves way up on, Dynaforce rebounded with a game win in the Beverly D.

Speaking of off turf, the turf condition Saturday at Arlington had to be much softer than its official label of good. Dynaforce's final time was more than five seconds off the course record. Gio Ponti's time in the Million was more than five seconds off the course record. And Take the Points's final time in winning the Secretariat was almost seven seconds off the course record.

Zensational, a 3-year-old who made it two straight Grade 1 scores over older opponents when he won Saturday's Bing Crosby at Del Mar, is obviously talented. But given whom he has beaten lately, it's impossible to get a handle right now on how good he really is. He beat little when he won the Triple Bend, and on Saturday, when he easily made the lead even after missing the break, he beat a former claimer and a turf horse.

But when it comes to Fabulous Strike, there are no such issues. He faced by far the best sprint field assembled this year in Sunday's Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga - a field that included Grade 1 winner Kodiak Kowboy, defending sprint champ Benny the Bull, and the runner up in last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint, Fatal Bullet - and made them look meek with yet another impressive victory. If you're looking for an old gelding to root for in place of Commentator, 6-year-old Fabulous Strike should be your guy.