Friday, 03 August 2018 11:12

Commentator’s “It” Factor

By Bendan O’Meara | Winner's Circle

CERTAIN RACES have nostalgia baked into their conditions.

For instance, Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney Invitational, a nine-furlong scamper, wire-to-wire, has a long history and like the Travers, reliving races of this magnitude roots you in time, for better or worse.

Ten years ago, the great New York-bred Commentator vied for his second career Whitney. He won his first in 2005, rebuffing the monstrous future Horse of the Year Saint Liam. In 2008, Commentator went straight to the front. 

“Well, I would say that was unbelievable,” Zito said. “He won in 2005. We beat the Horse of the Year. That was special. That was great. In 2008, three years later to win the Whitney, that’s a really special horse.”

There’s no denying Commentator had a certain “it” factor. All the great ones have it and for someone like Zito, a Hall of Famer and life-long horseman, to say it, you know it goes beyond mere impressionism and into something more concrete.

“We love every horse in the barn,” he said. “We love all horses, but you can tell it’s different when someone walks down the street. ‘That’s so and so. That’s this one and that’s that one.’ The presence of someone. That’s where he stood out. You could see he had a different presence to him. Obviously you can’t come back from setbacks and perform on a high level [like he did]. Nine out of 10 horses—90 out of 100 horses— don’t do that.”

The playbook for horses of this nature is alarmingly simple: go to the lead, not too fast, see what happens.

In 2008, when 24 and change went up and Commentator relaxed, you knew he had what it took to dictate the terms of the race. Turning for home, he opened up like it was nothing.

Zito, coming off an upset win in the Belmont Stakes with Da’Tara two months earlier, paraded down from box, pointed at the ABC camera, and stormed down the stairs to the winner’s circle.

It was a magical performance as Commentator thwarted popular horses like Grasshopper, the same colt who gave Street Sense all he could handle in the 2007 Travers, and Student Council. Commentator schooled them all.

When Zito speaks of Commentator, it’s always with reverence, almost like he couldn’t believe what the Distorted Humor gelding was capable of. It’s one thing to ration speed in the three or four path and let the pace setters do the heavy lifting. It’s another to take the herd to the woodshed on the lead, to be rabbit and tortoise all in one package.

Slow and steady wins the race? Say what now?

“I just think, again, his demeanor, his performances were unbelievable,” Zito said. “I remember [jockey] Johnny [Velazquez] telling me, who won the Whitney in 2008, he told me when went up to New England for the Mass Cap, [Commentator] could’ve beat anybody that day. Even though running in New England the company is not a Saratoga class or Commentator class. That day he could beat anybody. Johnny is one of the great jockeys ever. I believe him.”

In 2009, by then an eight-year-old, Commentator saddled up for the Whitney yet again. Zito figured it would be the horse’s final race, win or lose. He always noted how wonderful and patient the owners Tracy and Carol Farmer were with the horse. They trusted Zito and his team to bring the horse along. Exercise rider Maxine Correia, groom Gustavo Sanchez, the hot walkers, everyone. 

 A horse doesn’t get to the starting gate on its own. It doesn’t even get there on the skill and attention of a trainer alone. 

If Commentator had an easy lead in the 2008 Whitney, he would get no such easy pass in 2009. Pressed from the start Commentator turned for home in the lead, but Bulls Bay, a titanic long shot came flying off the turn and blew past Commentator. Macho Again, another late closer, breezed past Commentator. 

But Commentator, tired, lots of wear and tear in those old bones, settled for third.

Zito said in 2009, “Father Time catches up to everybody.”

I remember following Zito after the race as I was doing the reporting for what would become Six Weeks in Saratoga. I kept my distance by about 20 yards. Zito walked with his head low, hands in his pockets. 

Sorry to cite my own book, but here’s what I wrote:

“Zito’s chin dropped to his chest while he walked under the roof of the grandstand, weaved his way through tables, and glued his feet to the floor in front of a television. On the television streamed the replay of the Whitney. Zito stood like a sentinel, his arms folded, neck craned up at an angle. He made no sound. In this replay, Commentator still ran, still fought. There was the head-on shot, the pan shot, illustrating the many views of defeat. It was on this screen that Commentator still raced. At last Zito tore his eyes away from that screen with his head low, scuffing his feet across a worn path back to his barn.”

I remember then Zito telling me that had Commentator won that Whitney he was going to retire him that day.

And on the phone just a few days ago, reliving memories of the old war horse, he added, “Then he would’ve marched across the street right into the Hall of Fame.”

Brendan O’Meara is a freelance writer and author of Six Weeks in Saratoga. He also hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.

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