09/17/2008 12:00AM

Racing to win, for a cause


Nick Zito is a ceremonial kind of guy, with a well-developed sense of the dramatic. He revels in large gestures and broad strokes, while serving up an appreciation of history that only comes from those who make their share.

That is why it is no surprise to see Zito on his way to Boston on Saturday to run the 7-year-old version of Commentator in the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap, at 1 1/8 miles on the Suffolk Downs main track.

"It's a cool place," Zito said Wednesday morning. "There's a lot of tradition. I've sent horses up there over the years, and when I do, I love to walk through the grandstand and see the names of all those old horses who ran there."

It's a fair list, topped by the likes of Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Cigar, and Skip Away, all winners of the Massachusetts Handicap under 130 pounds. Stymie won it under 128 pounds, Gun Bow finished second under 131. Riva Ridge, Crimson Satan, and Droll Role got the money. Challedon, Gallorette, and Drumtop tried hard but lost.

At the dawn of the 1990s, odd gaps began to appear in the presentation of the Massachusetts Handicap as Suffolk management changed shape. Then last year, new owner Richard Fields decided that local fans deserved a major race they could count on.

In the meantime, for the past five years the one true constant in the Nick Zito racing universe has been Commentator. Gearing up or winding down, in brilliant form or on the mend, Commentator is always somewhere in mind. He is a concept as much as a racehorse, representing the perfect marriage of talent and management, as well as a tribute to the recuperative powers of the Thoroughbred.

"He's the only 7-year-old gelding I know that if you just hang out at his stall, he'll bite you," Zito said. "He acts like a feisty colt.

"Not every day has been glorious, though," Zito added. "He has had his issues, and when he had troubles, we had troubles."

Commentator is a caramel chestnut with a small star and three white stockings - ankle, crew, and mid-calf. Like Zito, he was bred in New York. He has run just 19 times, won 12, and 11 of those were daylight romps, including his most recent parade in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. The lone nail-biter was the 2005 version of the Whitney, when Commentator defeated Saint Liam by a neck - the same Saint Liam who went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and Horse of the Year.

He had to go through Commentator to do it, though, and the memory still sticks in Zito's craw. Rick Dutrow, Saint Liam's trainer, ran two hopeless rabbits - more like sacrificial lambs - to hound Zito's horse in the subsequent Woodward Stakes at Belmont. Saint Liam won easily, while Commentator finished a distant third. The running line describes him as being "under attack."

"He didn't come back so good that day," Zito said. "That shin bugged him again, and he needed a long time off."

The trainer was referring to Commentator's left front cannon bone, which has required the insertion of screws to help heal more than one fracture. As hard and as fast as Commentator runs, the leg is always a worry, and he has never made more than five starts in a single season. Saturday's appearance will be his fifth of 2008.

For Zito, as well as owner Tracy Farmer, the Massachusetts Handicap will mean more than just being 3-5 for a $500,000 pot. Zito wants to draw what attention he can to the Suffolk Downs no-tolerance policy toward any trainer who knowingly sells a racehorse to slaughter. The penalty is a lifetime ban from the track, which was soundly endorsed by Fields when he assumed ownership.

Zito has been a spokesman for the anti-slaughter movement, giving credit for his involvement not only to his wife, Kim, but also to the respected New York owner and breeder John Hettinger, who created Blue Horse Charities for the support of retired racehorses. Hettinger died Sept. 6 at his Akindale Farm, at the age of 74. Should Commentator come through with a victory Saturday, Zito plans to dedicate the race to Hettinger's memory.

"I get a little upset thinking of John's passing," Zito said. "He was a great man. He asked me to speak for the anti-slaughter movement when there were people far more qualified. I don't know what most scholars know, so I have to take verses from somewhere in the Good Book, and once in awhile keep pace with them. In the book of Proverbs it says, 'Hold back those stumbling to slaughter.' So that's all I can tell you. I'm not as smart as those guys on Wall Street. Well, maybe today I am."

Commentator spent last year at shorter distances and ended up running poorly in the Breeders' Cup Sprint over a terrible track at Monmouth Park. This year, Zito has let his horse have more leash, leaving dangle a few tempting possibilities over the final months of the season, including the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and the Cigar Mile.

"I don't know what will happen after this race," Zito said. "But I'll tell you the one decision I've made - to try and win the Whitney next year."