“How do you beat Commentator in the Whitney?” The question is as simple as it is complex in today’s $750,000 feature. And it’s still unanswered.
Dating to Commentator’s first Whitney win in 2005 and second last year, 17 horses have tried and 17 horses have failed to beat Tracy Farmer’s legendary New York-bred. Almost four years to the day since he first won the historic Grade I, the question is still open-ended and looms large as Commentator looks to become only the third horse to win the Whitney Handicap three times.
Trained by Nick Zito, Commentator is as reliable in Saratoga as Old Faithful is in Yellowstone. The 8-year-old son of Distorted Humor has won four times in six starts at the Spa and totes a career record of 14 wins from 23 starts. He first made headlines in the 9-furlong Whitney in 2005, when he set the pace and held sway for a neck win over eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam. The win will forever hold a special place in Zito’s memory.
“It was an unbelievable moment when he won the first Whitney. We were going into the Hall of Fame two days later and to beat the Horse of the Year the way he did, that’s good enough alone,” Zito said. “We always, for some reason, put the Whitney on our calendar. The Farmers have told me they would rather win the Whitney than the Breeders’ Cup and so the Commentator story is an amazing thing and a gift.”
Last year Commentator again wired the Whitney, but this time it was an authoritative 4 3/4-length tour-de-force. He followed it up with a 14-length romp in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs and ended his season with a third in the Grade II Clark at Churchill Downs.
Commentator (John Velazquez to ride, 121 pounds) made his 2009 debut in the Charles Town Classic in West Virginia and ran a disappointing fourth as the favorite. Zito regrouped and Commentator pasted four overmatched New York-breds en route to a 7-length romp in the Kashatreya at Belmont Park July 12. Zito immediately targeted the Whitney with Commentator, who looks to join Kelso and Discovery as the only three-time winners.
“There’s an expression,” Zito said. “‘It’s not the skill, it’s the will.’ And Commentator has that will.”
Six others will line up to try and break it in the Whitney.
Mechanicville native Chad Brown sends out Mount Joy Stable’s Smooth Air (Jose Lezcano, 118) for the second time since the 4-year-old joined the barn in June. The son of Smooth Jazz was a fringe player on the Triple Crown scene in 2008, finishing second to Big Brown in the Florida Derby before running 11th in the Kentucky Derby. He took the Grade II Ohio Derby at 9 furlongs in his next start and finished his year with a seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In 2009, Smooth Air has turned the corner and emerged as one of the best handicap horses on the East Coast. In his first three starts for former trainer Bennie Stutts he ran second in a minor stakes on the turf at Gulfstream Park, took the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap and then finished second, beaten a half-length in the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park on Memorial Day. Brown took over after the Met and Smooth Air ran second in the Grade III Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park July 4. All three 2009 starts on the main track have been at a one-turn mile, but Brown sees several factors pointing Smooth Air’s way in the Whitney.
“I really like the way’s he trained the last two days; he’s really galloped well and I’m not worried about the distance,” Brown said. “He’s a very handy horse, not real big and I think that will allow him to handle the turns. He drew well and over the years there has been a lot of smallish-type horses handle these turns real well at Saratoga. He’s trained better up here than he did at Belmont and I think that will make him a little better on Saturday.”
Brown, a former assistant to Hall of Famers Bobby Frankel and Shug McGaughey, will tangle with Commentator for the first time in the Whitney. He’s aware the task of dethroning the two-time Whitney winner will be daunting, but he’s not without a plan.
“Commentator is a tough customer and I don’t care how old he is. I know that horse is training well, I know he loves Saratoga and I know he’s fast,” Brown said. “The only way you beat him is with help and it looks like with Tizway in there we might have some. We’re going to need it because Commentator’s just too good. If you let him have things his own way then everyone else is running for second. I need help and it’s not going to be me – and I don’t want it to be me. If we could soften him up a bit and our horse runs one of his better races that’s the only shot we have to beat him.”
James Bond gave every trainer looking to pull off the upset a glimmer of hope when he dropped the improving Tizway’s name into the entry box. William Clifton’s 4-year-old (Rajiv Maragh, 113) exits three 1-mile runs this year where he’s set or been just off of sub 46-second half-miles, including a lopsided win in an optional-claimer at Belmont July 12.
While some may view Tizway as nothing more than a pace casualty, Bond is hardly a newcomer to the Whitney. The trainer won the race in 1997 with Will’s Way and also has in-the-money finishes with Behrens (twice), and L’Carriere. With Tizway he comes in under the radar with a colt that is set to run the race of his life.
“I’m going to go over there and have a lot of fun on Saturday because there’s no pressure this time like there has been in the past. When we brought over Behrens, L’Carriere and Will’s Way it was there,” Bond said. “Tizway’s blossoming and couldn’t be coming in any better than he is right now. All of us trainers say the same thing but it’s the truth. I wouldn’t change one thing about him right now.”
Talk to anyone other than Zito and they’re ecstatic to see Tizway in the Whitney lineup. In both Whitney scores, Commentator was allowed to dictate the tempo and set a relaxed pace while saving plenty for the stretch. Bond knows a speed duel would extinguish any chance Tizway has a way of pulling the upset but also knows he’s not tossing aside what has worked so well this year.
“You watch Tizway’s races and he’s got that long, fluid stride with a lot of gears. He’s a free running horse and if you take that type of horse out of his game it’s not going to work. We know what got us to the game and so we’ll just let him go out there and do it and hopefully he’s good enough,” Bond said. “I have mixed emotions about taking on Commentator. Nick is a friend of mine and Commentator is a great horse and a New York-bred. I think we know how to beat him but we still all have to show up and get it done, and that’s not going to be easy.”
West Point Thoroughbreds’ Macho Again (Robby Albarado, 119) took the Jim Dandy here last summer as a 3-year-old and has ascended to the top of the handicap ranks at 4. The Dallas Stewart trainee took the Grade II New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds in March and snared his first Grade I win in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 13. The stretch-running gray owns three wins from six career starts at 9 furlongs and his late rally would be enhanced by swift early fractions. Stewart is taking a simplistic approach to downing Commentator.
“You’ve got to be first on the wire,” he joked. “You’ve just got to show up and win it. Commentator’s a great horse and Nick has done a great job with him but our horse couldn’t be doing any better and we’re going to give it our best shot. With Tizway running, there seems to be some pace so we’ll just sit back and make our run like we always do. He’s ready to rip. He’s in good form, likes this track and distance and has been doing extremely well since the Foster so it gives us a lot of confidence to go over and get it done.”
Dry Martini (Edgar Prado, 117) is another late-running threat. The 6-year-old gelding, trained by Barclay Tagg for Carol Nyren, closed from 10th and last to win Belmont’s Grade II Suburban at 10 furlongs on July 4.
Dry Martini benefited from a demanding half-mile that day and would be happy to see Commentator and Tizway hook up early in the Whitney. Dry Martini figures to man the caboose while Tizway drives the train and Tagg won’t be taking his charge out of his element.
“We’re one-dimensional; we’ll sit out the back and hope they soften him up a bit, and Edgar and the horse are good like that. If it sets up, great, if it doesn’t then there’s nothing we can do it about,” Tagg said. “Hopefully they won’t let Commentator run off with it like they do every other year. He’s training good, had a good work the other day, is sound and healthy so why not?”
Sheikh Mohammed’s Asiatic Boy (Alan Garcia, 121) came to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn earlier this spring with high expectations. The 6-year-old won the UAE Derby in 2007 and finished second to Curlin in the Dubai World Cup in 2008 while in the barn of Mike de Cock. McLaughlin took over after a 12th-place run in this year’s World Cup and Asiatic Boy made his first start on American soil in the Foster, finishing a troubled second behind Macho Again. He did the same in the Suburban, fighting through the stretch to preserve the place while succumbing late to Dry Martini’s rally. McLaughlin forges on in the Whitney but knows he needs Commentator to come back to the pack.
“We’ve got to hope someone goes out there and hooks him and he stubs his toe,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a great horse and loves Saratoga so it’s going to be tough, but we’ve got to hope he’s lost a half-step while at the same time we go out and run our A-plus race. If he can get softened up early and we improve a bit we might have a chance to run him down at the end.”
Bullsbay (Jeremy Rose, 116) goes after his first Grade I score in the Whitney for Mitchell Ranch and Graham Motion. The 5-year-old son of Tiznow took the Grade III Alysheba at Churchill and has been threatening to join the elite of the handicap division this year. Bullsbay dead-heated for fourth in the Foster behind Macho Again. Motion sent him west for the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup on July 11 but Bullsbay never handled the Cushion Track and finished 10th.
“We’ve been taking shots all along and it obviously it didn’t work in California but I think you can just draw a line right through the race,” Motion said. “These horses have been beating each other all year. We beat Macho Again once and then he came back to beat us. We were just a length or two off of Asiatic Boy, so I don’t think we’re that far off these horses.”
As for the Whitney itself, and taking on Commentator?
“There’s a lot of intangibles to the race. Commentator is a stand out if he’s as good as he was but I think everyone else is in the same mix. I don’t really know how you beat him. I think we need him to stub his toe or hope someone else wants to go out there and try to beat him,” Motion said. “I know we’re certainly not going to do that. With Tizway in there it looks like there’s some pace and I think everyone out there is hoping he’ll do some of the dirty work.”
Additional reporting by Karen Johnson and Sean Clancy.