01/21/2008 12:00AM

Three 'C' horses who merit A's


NEW YORK - There were three particularly interesting horses in the news this past week who merit some discussion. And no, I'm not working my way through the phone book. It's just a coincidence that all three horses have names beginning with the letter "C."

* Commentator - This familiar gelding made a sensational 7-year-old debut last Thursday at Gulfstream Park, crushing six opponents in an optional claimer. He scored by 14 lengths with almost arrogant ease in the track-record time of 1:33.71 for one mile.

Right off the bat, there will be those who will say, "So what?" Over the years, Commentator has developed something of a reputation as a horse who will look like a world beater when conditions are in his favor, but when faced with a little bit of pressure or adversity, he might just as easily look ordinary. And detractors will note that last Thursday, Commentator could not have had a more favorable setup.

Well, that last part is true. Commentator was in with a weak bunch, and for a horse whose stock in trade is high early speed, he was for all intents and purposes given a shortcut to the winner's circle when he was allowed to get away with an opening quarter-mile in 23.98 seconds.

On the other hand, there are many horses every racing day who get things all their own way, and still can't come close to showing the kind of brilliance Commentator did on Thursday. His performance was good for a Beyer Speed Figure of 119, which even in January sets a high standard for the rest of this year. Think about it. Commentator's 119 would have equaled the second-highest Beyer Figure earned in all of 2007, which included Curlin's figure for his powerful Breeders' Cup Classic victory, falling just five points shy of the best Beyer in all of 2007, Midnight Lute's freakish 124 in the Forego.

It isn't like Commentator is a stranger to lofty Beyer Figures. He earned Beyers exceeding 120 twice in his career. One of those was the 123 he got for winning the 2005 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, the race that proved Commentator can indeed stand the heat of battle. If you recall, that day Commentator had a big pace advantage on the late-running favorite, Saint Liam. Any edge Commentator had pacewise was negated, however, when he ran off to a big lead through very fast middle fractions. Saint Liam looked like he had dead aim late, but Commentator just wouldn't let him by. Commentator so impressed Saint Liam's connections that when the two hooked up in the subsequent Woodward, they ran not one, but two rabbits at him. It worked, and Saint Liam, of course, won that Woodward, as well as the BC Classic, to become Horse of the Year.

Nick Zito, trainer of Commentator, said after Thursday's race that he doesn't really have plans for his gelding. There's good reason for that. Commentator has had his share of physical issues, which is likely a contributing factor to why he has the reputation he does. He has never started more than five times in one season, and he has only managed that once. But if he were mine, I would focus on middle-distance races. He can handle middle distances, and the easier paces found in those races compared with sprints might not only make him more effective, but could also preserve his health.

* Curlin - The probable 2007 Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male had his third published workout of 2008 on Friday morning at Fair Grounds. Yet remarkably, there is still no guarantee that Curlin will actually race this year because of the convoluted situation regarding his ownership.

If Curlin doesn't race again, it would be a shame. A massive specimen, he seemed to only begin to fulfill his physical potential late last year, which strongly suggests that he could easily be a more effective performer this year at 4 than he was last year. If Curlin doesn't race this year, it would be like the Grinch coming back right about now and making off with that high-definition television you got for Christmas.

It appears that no one knows exactly what will happen with Curlin, not even his trainer, Steve Asmussen. But those looking for a hopeful sign might find it here: While Curlin's three workouts this year have been deliberate - they have all been slow breezes - the timing of them, coming on six-day intervals, seems full of purpose. Hey, you take your encouragement wherever you can find it.

* Champs Elysees - English Channel last year punched a big hole in the belief that an American horse considered to be one of the leaders of the turf division at the start of the season can't stand alone at the top at the end of the campaign. He proved that premier American turf racing doesn't always have to be a "one month in the fall" division, or vulnerable to Breeders' Cup plunder by European invaders. So when viewed in this context, Champs Elysees's emergence as an early force in this division, a point made clear by his solid victory in Saturday's Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita, is intriguing.

Champs Elysees is not perfect. Notwithstanding his San Marcos win, or his troubled-trip second in the Hollywood Turf Cup late last year in his U.S. debut, it remains to be seen whether he has the really quick turn of foot that all truly top turf horses seem to own. But there is certainly no better-bred turf horse in America, as Champs Elysees is either a full or half-brother to the outstanding Grade 1 winners Intercontinental, Banks Hill, Cacique, and Heat Haze. The 1 1/4 miles at which he won the San Marcos does look like it is at the absolute short end of the spectrum when it comes to his distance preferences.