08/07/2009 12:00AM

Taking stock of Commentator

Barbara D. Livingston
Commentator, Maxine Correa up, works at Saratoga last week for Saturday's Grade 1 Whitney, a race he has already won twice in his career.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Nearly five years to the day after his career began, Commentator makes the 24th - and perhaps final - start of his magnificent career in Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. A victory would put him in rarefied company along with five-time Horse of the Year Kelso (1961, 63, 65) and the champion Discovery (1934-36) as the only three-time winners of this prestigious handicap race.

At 8 years old, Commentator would join Kelso as the oldest horse to win the Whitney, a race being run for the 82nd time on Saturday.

Remarkably, for a horse who has won 14 of 23 starts, Commentator has had nine different jockeys, eight of whom have won on him. Seven of those riders, along with owner Tracy Farmer and trainer Nick Zito, shared their most memorable moments with Commentator

Javier Castellano (3 for 3): Castellano was aboard for Commentator's first three wins, including his debut on Aug. 9, 2004, which came two days after Roses in May nosed out Perfect Drift in the 77th Whitney.

As the only first-time starter in a field of 13, Commentator overcame a slow start to record a 10 1/2-length win at odds of 9-2, running seven furlongs in 1:23.63.

Barbara D. Livingston
Javier Castellano rode Commentator in his first three races, all victories.

"He was so very impressive," Castellano said. "He was so kind in the post parade, he was so relaxed, that's the kind of horse you could expect anything. It could be really, really good, or it could be an immature horse. He surprised me because he was so laid back in the post parade, he enjoyed the big crowd. He was in the gate, he loaded fine, as soon as they opened the gate, boom! I said, 'Man, what kind of horse is this?' He won so easy, light on his feet, nice and smooth and turning for home by 10."

Rafael Bejarano (1 for 1): With Castellano committed to ride the graded stakes winner Eurosilver in the Perryville Stakes at Keeneland, Bejarano picked up the mount aboard Commentator in the $112,000 race on Oct. 14, 2004. In the mud - Keeneland had a dirt track way back then - Bejarano guided Commentator to a seven-length win over Eurosilver.

"That was a nice horse," Bejarano said. "That day, he showed me his true ability in that race. I didn't have to do too much with the horse, he won so easy."

Channing Hill (1 for 1): After the Perryville, Pat Day rode Commentator to an allowance win at Churchill Downs and was aboard when the gelding finished seventh in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope at Gulfstream on Jan. 8, 2005. Commentator suffered a shin injury in the Hal's Hope that kept him away from the races for five months.

Commentator returned to the races on June 29, 2005 in a third-level allowance race at Belmont Park. Then a 17-year-old apprentice, Hill gave Commentator a vigorous ride through the wire and they won by 16 1/2 lengths, running seven furlongs 1:20.23, just .06 of a second off Left Bank's track record.

"I remember walking in the paddock and [Zito] telling me to hold on and basically that's all I really did and he almost broke the track record," Hill said. "That was one of the biggest mounts of my career. That was the first real, real nice horse I had ever been on - that really showed me what a nice horse was, and I just remember coming back from the race and everyone was saying 'Why'd you ride him all the way out to the wire?' I had no idea. I had never ridden that quality of horse before, I mean, what an animal he was."

Gary Stevens (1 for 2): Stevens rode Commentator to his 2005 Whitney victory, letting him cruise through fractions of 23.56 seconds, 46.41, and 1:09.15 before holding off eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam by a neck.

"That was one of the funnest races I ever rode," said Stevens, a retired Hall of Fame jockey who is now a trainer in Southern California. "After the first quarter-mile, I was laughing to myself because he switched completely off. He was rolling right along, but he was so well within himself when he was doing it, he was like in a two-minute lick. When I picked him up and asked him he cut."

Stevens was also aboard Commentator in the Woodward at Belmont Park when trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. sent two rabbits, or speedballs, to run with Commentator, to set the race up for Saint Liam, who won.

"At that time, he would go as fast as the ones that made him run," Stevens said. "He matured with age. He's been ratable when Johnny [Velazquez] rode him. He wasn't like that when I was on him."

Eibar Coa (1 for 2): Commentator reinjured his shin in the Woodward and did not race for 10 months. He returned July 12, 2006, in the Mugatea Stakes for New York-breds. Eibar Coa got the mount and guided him to a 6 1/2-length victory in a field of four. He ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.76.

"He was a fun horse to ride, for sure, very professional," Coa said. "If he didn't have all those [physical] problems he had throughout his career, he could have been one of the best horses in the country."

Coa was also aboard when Commentator finished 10th of 11 as the 4-5 favorite in that year's Grade 1 Forego, a race in which he broke poorly.

"He reared up at the gate," Coa said. "He was moving, we were trying to get him right, and they sprung it at the wrong time."

Corey Nakatani (1 for 3): Following the Forego, Commentator endured another eight-month layoff before returning in the Richmond Runner Stakes on May 28, 2007 at Belmont. With Nakatani up, Commentator cruised to an 11 1/4-length victory, running 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.69.

Nakatani got off the horse and remembers telling Zito, "The farther he goes the better he's going to be."

Nakatani said, "His cruising speed is 22 [seconds], and the farther he went underneath you like that the better and stronger he got."

Commentator got used in a duel in the Tom Fool and then broke poorly and attempted to rate in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt in his next two starts under Nakatani.

Commentator would end his 2007 campaign with a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at sloppy Monmouth Park. Joe Bravo was aboard for that race.

John Velazquez (5 for 8): Velazquez has been Commentator's regular rider for the last two years, beginning with a one-mile allowance race that he won by 14 lengths in a then-track record 1:33.71.

Though Velazquez has had many memorable moments on Commentator, he said last year's Whitney was "probably the most impressive race he's run."

"He was galloping the first part of the race, he put his ears up and it felt like we were just walking," Velazquez said. "We got to the three-eighths pole, and as soon as I picked the bridle up he started going away. I said this is a mile and an eighth I'm going to make sure I got him running. I got after him and he was running and I said they're really going to have to run to come and get him. I never thought he would go the two turns as easy as he did that day."

Tracy Farmer (owner): Farmer points to Commentator's debut as the first thing that comes to his mind when thinking about Commentator. According to Farmer, the original clocking of the race was 1:21 and change, though the final time in the books went as 1:23.63.

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Nick Zito ranks Commentator's first Whitney victory among the high points of his career.

"They said that's not possible, the clock must be off," Farmer recalled of the original time. "I remember the people that owned Distorted Humor" - Commentator's sire. "Bill Casner said, 'What happened?' I said, 'I can't explain it.' But it made me realize that he could do that later on in his career. At that time, we didn't know."

Nick Zito (trainer): Zito said Commentator's first Whitney victory ranks as high on his list as any of the five Triple Crown races he has won.

"One of the reasons was that was a Saturday, and Monday we went into the Hall of Fame. That had to be the ultimate," Zito said. "Strike the Gold's Derby ranks right up there, and all the great Triple Crown races we won and Breeders' Cup races we won, but I'd have to say that ranks as high as anything. It was true racing, he beat the Horse of the Year, he proved he could go two turns. It was a great, great effort. He had a lot of resolve that day."

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