THIS IS HORSE RACING

Change Of Command eyes Parx turf stakes

With apologies to Gene Rayburn, Change Of Command is so big . . . How big is he?!

He’s so big, you can recognize him from 100 yards away. He’s so big, the hotwalker has to cut through the middle of the barn when he hears “Hoah back” to avoid crashing into a horse in front of him. He’s so big, trainer Mike Trombetta worries about him. He’s so big, exercise rider Elvin Caraballo is built like a boxer. He’s so big, everybody calls him The Big Horse.

He’d probably have that name anyway, even if he were 15 hands. Measured at 17 hands, 2 ½ inches the Maryland-bred has won eight of 23 starts and more than $287,000. He ran a mile in 1:33 1/5 to set a track record in a stakes at Monmouth Park this summer and is the 5-2 favorite in Saturday’s $250,000 PTHA President’s Cup at Parx Racing. The 9-furlong turf stakes headlines a rich card at the Pennsylvania track and lured a big field of 11. The day’s 11th race is set for 4:54 p.m.

Though it’s a nice spot itself, Trombetta sees the race as a prep for the Maryland Million at Laurel Oct. 19.

“It was either here or New York next week (a $100,000 overnight stakes Sept. 21) and then the Maryland Million,” said the trainer. “We chose this, we get the extra week. It makes me feel better, gives me a little more time in case I have a hiccup or something and if I skip this week and next week rains off I’m out of luck. If this is a reasonable spot I’ve almost kind of got to do it.”

There are no easy spots when it comes to East Coast turf races, but Change Of Command rates a long look Saturday.

He’s won three of seven this year and exits a late-running fourth behind Silver Max, Howe Great and Hudson Steele in the Grade 3 Oceanport at Monmouth. Julian Pimentel picks up the ride from post four. Woodbine shipper Hampstead Heath looks like the main threat off back to-back Grade 2 placings in Canada for trainer Brian Lynch. The 4-year-old Macho Uno gelding is 7-2 with Stewart Elliott aboard. Stakes veteran Swift Warrior ships down from New York for trainer John Terranova. Sixth in the Oceanport, the 5-year-old son of First Samurai won two Grade 3 stakes early this year. Jose Ortiz takes the ride at 9-2. Phipps Stable’s Reflecting, a half-brother to Imagining, exits a third behind Slumber and Sky Blazer at Saratoga for trainer Shug McGaughey. The 4-year-old was a neck behind Change Of Command in December. John Bisono rides the 5-1 shot. Trainer Graham Motion adds blinkers to General Logan, who seeks his fifth career win. The 4-year-old beat Change Of Command in May, but was a well-beaten ninth in the Oceanport. Matt Rispoli rides at 10-1.

Regardless of how he runs, Trombetta is happy with his horse, who races for breeders Wayne and Juanita Morris.

“He’s had a good year the last two races number-wise are his best races of the season,” he said. “If he can find it in his heart to give me a couple more of them he’ll close it up with a good season. He’s due a break. He’s been in training for quite some time now. Win, lose or draw he deserves to be turned out in the snow this winter. He’s done well every time we’ve gone to Florida with him, but he’s been in training basically for two years.”

With all that size, Change Of Command can be a beast on the track and nobody knows that better than Elvin Caraballo. The 10-year racetrack veteran calls the son of Gators N Bears the toughest horse he’s ever galloped.

“He’s a very, very powerful horse,” said Caraballo after jumping down late Thursday morning. “You’ve just got to get along with him because you’re not ever, ever, ever going to outmuscle him. Two weeks ago I was galloping him. I was going nice and easy and I had a horse come up next to me and he’s so competitive he’s like ‘We gotta go.’ I couldn’t hold him.”

Thursday, Change Of Command trained late to avoid the traffic and returned blowing and sweaty on a hot morning.

“He’s running Saturday, so this morning I was so nervous thinking if he runs off with me Mike is going to kill me,” said Caraballo. “He’s strong, but I love him. He’s really gentle, calm and quiet, a really nice horse.”

Caraballo proudly watches Change Of Command’s races, but will leave the race riding to the jockeys.

“I feel bad for the jockey because he’s not easy to ride, I don’t want that pressure,” he said. “He’s very competitive and that helps him in the race, but you’ve got to get him to relax. When you grab him, that’s when he goes.”

Second to Roadhog, also based at Fair Hill Training Center, in last year’s Maryland Million Turf, Change Of Command gets helped by a change in distance from 9 furlongs to a mile.  Another condition change adds a new variable, however. Since Maryland Million eliminated its Turf Sprint race, Ben’s Cat could try to stretch his speed to the longer race.

“Roadhog’s obviously very good,” said Trombetta. “Ben’s Cat is lurking in the shadows of a mile. He’ll be tough too. It will be interesting, but as good as he is I’d have to take my chances at that distance.”