Nick Zito wrapped Carlos Correa in a headlock as the two men – co-workers – bulled their way to the winner’s circle after the Whitney Handicap. It was their world – two men telling each other, ‘I told you so.’
They were both right. John Velazquez coddled and cajoled 9 epic furlongs from Commentator, but it was Correa and Zito who had been doing all the work leading up to the Grade I stakes. A fragile 7-year-old that runs every furlong like it’s his bachelor party, Commentator collected his second Whitney crown, three years after his first. In 2005, he clung to a neck victory over Saint Liam. This time, he kicked away to an un-pressured 4 3/4-length win over Student Council, who closed from deep in the field. Grasshopper finished a distant third, a nose ahead of Notional. Owned by Tracy Farmer, Commentator completed the 1 1/8-mile in 1:50.23.
Correa has coddled and cajoled Commentator for six seasons, galloping him slowly to preserve the precious grease left in his squeaky legs. Plagued by a twice-repaired left shin and compromised by a mind that says “go” all the time, Commentator now has 12 wins from 19 starts, with earnings of more than $1.5 million.
“I love this horse. I love this horse. I’ve galloped other big horses, but this one is the greatest,” Correa said while waiting for Commentator to return after winning the Whitney. “He’s always got to run hard, he’s a warrior, he’s like a 2-year-old. I know him like a book. When I gallop him, I make him go like a pony because he’s a fragile horse.”
In the two weeks leading to the Whitney, Correa could feel the kettle boiling. He galloped him around the Oklahoma track Friday like a mime in a phone booth; motionless on his back, nursing every stride, keeping the genie in the bottle.
“The way he went the last two days, I told Nick they’re not going to beat him. He’s an amazing horse,” Correa said. “I galloped him from day one, he hasn’t changed. When he’s right, he’ll beat anybody, believe me. Seven years old, still running – you don’t see horses like him. When he’s on, he’s an amazing horse. When he’s on, he’s a freak.”
Velazquez knew there was only one choice in the Whitney. Go. Breaking from the rail, Commentator shot to the front as potential pace factor Tasteyville missed the break and then jarred his way around the first turn. Longshot Timber Reserve angled from the outside post and found a spot in second, with Suburban runner-up (and public choice) Solar Flare adopting a comfortable zone in third. Commentator settled into his rhythm, cruising through a quarter mile in 24.16 seconds and a half in 47.73, more than a second slower than his first Whitney victory. Velazquez liked it.
“It makes a big difference to not have another speed horse going 22 and 45 in these kinds of races. He got to the lead and started loping in front, he loved it,” Velazquez said. “If a horse comes to him, he gets in the bridle right away, but I give and take, just play with him.”
Commentator and Velazquez played through three quarters in 1:11.80 as Timber Reserve and Solar Flare retreated. Notional and Grasshopper crept into position while Student Council began a wide move to reach the first flight, well, the first flight behind Commentator. Velazquez nudged the 7-year-old gelding and in a flash, it was over. Commentator kicked and the others were already spent.
Velazquez picked up the ride on Commentator this winter, partnering him to two runaway scores at Gulfstream Park. Velazquez learned Commentator’s nuances and put the lessons to use.
“If you try to slow him down, he just goes,” Velazquez said. “I let him break first, then by the first turn I grab him and then let him go. When the other horse came to him, he grabbed me on his own. I let him do a little of what he wants and then I do a little of what I want.”
Commentator did more of what he wanted in his prior start, a tough loss in the Met Mile where he rattled on the lead and eventually succumbed to Divine Park. This time, he never felt that kind of pressure and kept to the coxswain’s call.
“I thought it was going to be a repeat from the Met Mile, when the other horse went with him. Trust me, he doesn’t need to be on the lead, he’s on the lead because he’s so fast. If you grab him, he’s going to go, but I didn’t have to grab him,” Velazquez said. “I told Nick when he got beat in the Met Mile, this horse is so good right now, I can let them go and rate him. Only problem today, I was on the inside. I told Nick I’m letting him go. When I drop him in, he’s gone.”
Velazquez is the lucky one, he gets to drop him. A former jockey, Correa holds him every day. He even steps aside to let his wife Maxine breeze him. For two weeks leading up to the Whitney, Zito haggled Correa.
“Nick leaves me alone, he never bothers me, but he was driving me crazy with this horse,” Correa said, with a grin. “Nick’s the best, I know he’s under pressure, but I kept telling him don’t worry.”
Zito worries. He’s taken 37 X-rays of Commentator’s left shin over the years. The same shin that’s been operated on twice. The shin that has limited Commentator to just 19 starts. The New York-bred son of Distorted Humor made his fourth start of the year in the Whitney. Last year, he ran four times. In 2006, twice. That’s why Zito was driving Correa crazy.
“I’ve been telling him for two weeks, you’ve got to be a perfectionist. He said, ‘You’re driving me crazy, you’re driving me crazy.’ I said for this particular race we had to be perfect and we were perfect,” Zito said. “He’s been with me forever, he’s a great horseman. I’ve got a great crew, you can’t do it by yourself, you need all the ingredients, we work hard, this is what it’s all about.”
After the race, Zito enjoyed a rollicking walk through the crowd. He got more pats on the back than at a security checkpoint. He posed for a photo with some fellow Brooklyn natives. He pumped his fist to every “Yeah, Nick” he heard. And there were a lot of them.
“To have a horse of this caliber do the things he does is truly amazing. Truly amazing, when you think about it. He’s one-dimensional, he’s got to be close and he’s fragile,” Zito said. “He’s one of the greatest. This will go down as one of the best. One of the best ever.”