08/06/2009 11:00PM

Out for the charm of a third time

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Barbara D. Livingston
Smooth Air, who comes out of four straight one-mile races, is likely to stalk the Whitney pace.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - That Commentator has made it to a third Whitney Handicap is an amazing feat. That the 8-year-old New York-bred gelding - who won this race in 2005 and again last year - comes in as the 8-5 favorite and horse to beat is even more remarkable.

While it would be a heart-warming tale if the old boy could join the likes of champions Kelso and Discovery as the only three-time winners of this prestigious event, it will not come easy. The seven-horse field may lack star power, but it does contain four other million-dollar earners who are in pretty good form: Asiatic Boy, Smooth Air, Macho Again, and Dry Martini.

The Whitney heads a strong 11-race Saturday card at Saratoga that also includes the Grade 1 Test for 3-year-old fillies and the return of a Breeders' Cup winner, Maram, in the John Hettinger Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on turf. The Whitney is the third leg of a late pick four wager that has a guaranteed pool of $500,000. The Whitney is a Win and You're In race, meaning the winner earns an automatic berth into the

$5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, to be run at Santa Anita on Nov. 7.

Commentator, owned by Tracy Farmer and trained by Nick Zito, did not use his free pass to the Classic last year, as his connections chose to stay away from Santa Anita's synthetic surface. Commentator has run just twice this year, a fourth-place finish in the three-turn Charles Town Classic - without the benefit of a prep - and a confidence-building victory in the Kashatreya Stakes against New York-breds on June 12.

Commentator has won his two Whitney Handicaps racing on the lead. Despite the presence of the speedy Tizway in the field, Zito expects his horse to be on the lead again from post 7 under John Velazquez.

"I don't think nobody wants to mess with me. You can't run with him, right or wrong?" Zito said. "It's a blessing to be in this position."

While the Whitney has been on Commentator's menu since last year's Whitney, it also has been a long-term goal for Asiatic Boy and his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. After finishing 12th of 14 in the Dubai World Cup in March, Asiatic Boy came to North America for the first time.

He finished a solid second to Macho Again in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill on June 13, a race in which he bumped with Einstein while seeking the same hole. Not wanting to wait eight weeks to run in the Whitney, McLaughlin wheeled him back in three weeks in the Suburban, where Asiatic Boy finished second behind Dry Martini. Now he has had five weeks from the Suburban and cuts back to 1 1/8 miles.

"We're doing great. He's training well, proper timing," McLaughlin said. "We hope that we've got some pace to run at. We're not going to be as far back as Macho Again."

Macho Again won the Jim Dandy here last year before nearly falling in the Travers. This year, he has alternated good races with bad, and comes in off an upset victory in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster.

"He just was ready and ran great and beat a really nice group of horses," said Dallas Stewart, trainer of Macho Again. "He ran awesome, and the favorite had a little bit of trouble."

The horse who may end up in the garden spot early is Smooth Air, who figures to stalk the pace from third position while saving ground from his rail post. His last four starts have been in one-mile races, and he drifted out in the stretch of the Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park, in which he finished second.

"It was a speed-favoring track, no pace, and though he did drift out he came back down toward the rail, and he was gaining," trainer Chad Brown said. "It looked like a mile and an eighth that day would have been perfect."

Brown said he was impressed with the way Smooth Air trained on Thursday morning, calling his gallop "as good as I've seen him."

Jose Lezcano rides Smooth Air.

Dry Martini won the Suburban at 1 1/4 miles at Belmont Park on July 4 and has been working sharply for this.

"If your horse belongs and they're at their best - and it feels like he's at his best - I like to run them," said Barclay Tagg, trainer of Dry Martini. "Belmont's big, sweeping track is great for come-from-behind horse, but this is a big track, too."

Tizway steps into graded company off a 7 1/2-length allowance win at Belmont on July 12. His dam, Bethany, is a half-sister to Will's Way, who won the Whitney for these same connections - owner William Clifton and trainer James Bond - in 1997.

Bullsbay, who hung when fourth in the Stephen Foster two starts back, rounds out the field.