Although I have discussed Evening Attire and his stirring performances in mile and a half races at age 10, I feel I must say something about another amazing old boy, Commentator.
These are the horses and stories that stir our souls and reach deep into our heart…and remain there. We all have our favorite Triple Crown horses and speak of them with great reverence. But many of them provide a fleeting jolt of emotion and then depart, leaving us wanting more. Horses like Commentator, Evening Attire, Better Talk Now, The Tin Man, and Perfect Drift -- just to name a few -- are the ones who feel like old friends. The longer they stay around the longer they amaze us with their youthful exuberance.
As I wrote in part in Blood-Horse magazine, on July 26, the injury-plagued 7-year-old New York-bred gelding Commentator defied the years, winning his second Whitney with the same brilliance and fervor he displayed in his victory three years earlier. And it came after layoffs of 10 months and eight months, the result of a shin fracture suffered after the 2005 Woodward. Despite winning his first Whitney by only a neck, defeating eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam, Commentator’s average winning margin in his 11 career victories still is an astounding 10 lengths. He has won his races by margins of 7 lengths twice, 8 lengths, 9 3/4 lengths, 10 1/2 lengths, 11 1/4 lengths, 13 3/4 lengths, 14 lengths, and 16 1/2 lengths, while earning outrageous Beyer speed figures of 119, 121, and 123. But in the Whitney, at age 7, he made time stand still, winning wire-to-wire by 4 3/4 lengths, earning an unheard of 120 Beyer figure. Not even the defending Horse of the Year Curlin has run that fast (he ran a 119 in the BC Classic), and Big Brown hasn’t come remotely close. Andy Beyer said he can’t recall a 7-year-old getting that high a number.
After the race, owner Tracy Farmer stood by himself on the track waiting for Commentator to return. The applause from the grandstand was already starting to build. Photographers, many with broad smiles on their faces, raced toward the middle of the track to get in position. There was plenty of hugging and even a few misty eyes. Then the cheers from the crowd began to swell as the horse came into view.
“There’s still fun in this game, isn’t there?” Farmer said.
With all the turmoil that has infiltrated racing over the past three months, Farmer’s words were a breath of optimism for a sport trying desperately to come up for air after being deflated by one crisis after another.
Yes, there still is fun in this game. If you have any doubts, just ask the fans who were at Saratoga on Whitney day, and many who watched on TV.
As Farmer’s wife, Carol, said of their ageless wonder, “Seven is the new four.”
Although Nick Zito received all the kudos and congratulations, the unsung hero, and the most choked up person on the track, was Commentator’s exercise rider of five years, Carlos Correa, who kept repeating, “I love this horse.”
The morning before the Whitney, Farmer came by the barn, sat down on a bench, and just soaked up the atmosphere. “This is a field of dreams and (Commentator) is a dream horse,” he said. “Just sitting here with all these horses and being at Saratoga is a dream.”
Another of his dreams was to accept a second Whitney trophy from his good friend Marylou Whitney. In the winter of 2004, the Farmers and Whitney and her husband and racing manager John Hendrickson were on a cruise together during the Christmas holidays.
“There was a wishing tree, and Marylou and I put a star on it and wished for Commentator to win the Whitney,” Hendrickson said. “We weren’t thinking about having it happen twice.”
When someone asked Zito what he wanted to do with him next, he replied, “What do I want to do with him? I want to put him in a glass house with lots of maids and take care of him the rest of my life. That’s what I want to do with him.”
Actually, Farmer has pretty much the same plan, minus the glass house and maids. “I’ve got a nice paddock for him whenever he tells us he’s ready for it,” he said. “If there’s one thing for sure, he’ll be well taken care of.”
Shortly after the Whitney, the skies opened up and torrential rains pounded down on Saratoga, accompanied by lightning and thunder that would last on and off for over five hours. Commentator was caught in the deluge walking back from the test barn, and after returning was dried off with clumps of straw that Zito and his help rubbed all over him.
Zito still was amazed at what Commentator was able to accomplish. “That fractured shin always kept stopping him,” he said. “They thought the first operation was a success, but it came back and he had to be operated on again. It’s continued to bother him, but here he is. He’s just unbelievable.”
So, that’s a brief look at what it was like being at Saratoga on Whitney day. I’ve experienced many special days at the Spa, but this has to rank right up there with the best of them. And it’s mainly because of Commentator’s age, his perseverance, coming back from several long layoffs, and his remarkable ability to return as brilliant as ever. He is proof that older does not necessarily mean slower.
Remember how they ganged up on Smarty Jones in the Belmont? And how about the tactics employed by a couple of jockeys in this year’s Belmont against Big Brown? There was no way Eibar Coa was going to let Big Brown out of the trap he had gotten into early in the race. The key word there is early. The move hurt Big Brown, but Coa’s mount, Tale of Ekati, came out of the race cut up near his coronet band.
Jockeys apparently are not going to let horses trying to make history have an easy time of it, or any huge favorite on the public stage for that matter. Then there was Ginger Punch in the Go For Wand.
She showed in that race why she is a champion when she fought off a gang of assailants determined to bring her down.
Although none of the other jockeys in the 1 1/8-mile race committed any infractions or were technically guilty of anything other than race-riding, to many observers the race appeared to be a well-orchestrated attempt to get the 1-5 Ginger Punch beat or at least put her in a compromising situation. But 1-5 favorites are always going to have a target on their back, and with Ginger Punch drawing post 1, this was a perfect opportunity for the opposing riders to try to make life miserable for her.
Last year’s champion older female was in a vulnerable spot, and when her jockey Rafael Bejarano tried to go for the lead, Edgar Prado, on Moon Catcher, outran her, and Shaun Bridgmohan, on Copper State, moved up into second, trapping Ginger Punch down on the inside. Runaway Rosie loomed right behind, ready to seal off any escape route.
By slowing the race down to a crawl (:49 and 1:14 4/5), it kept Ginger Punch bottled up longer than usual and prevented her from finding a way out. She was forced to steady on one occasion and then had to sit and wait for something to open up. When nothing did, many thought the champ was beaten, including her trainer Bobby Frankel.
After turning into the stretch, with the field still bunched up and plodding along at a snail’s pace, Bejarano desperately began looking for even the slightest opening. Finally, just before reaching the eighth pole, he and Ginger Punch were able to bull their way through, slicing between Moon Catcher and Copper State. Once Ginger Punch got to the lead she drew clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:53 2/5, the result of the dawdling pace and the heavy rain that hit just prior to the race.
“How the hell did she win that?” Frankel asked. “They were looking for her, but she showed she’s a champion.”
That she did, slow time or no slow time.
There have been editorial rumblings in the press recently -- myself included -- about a potential dream match between Curlin and Big Brown in the Aug. 30 Woodward Stakes. The general opinion has been that this would be the battle for Horse of the Year, and would generate a tremendous amount of interest, even beyond racing’s borders.
But wait a minute. This all sounds kind of familiar. Two years ago, there was a similar showdown for Horse of the Year honors in the Breeders’ Cup Classic between the budding 3-year-old superstar Bernardini and the legend in the making Lava Man, who needed one big victory outside California to secure his true place in history.
It all came to pass, and everything seemed ripe for a race for the ages. A poster was made up showing Bernardini and Lava Man ready to do battle in the ring. But, there was another horse around with exemplary credentials in his own right who was never even considered to be part of the poster. His name was Invasor, and because of an ill-timed fever, he was forced to miss the Jockey Club Gold Cup and go into the Classic cold off a layoff. All his trainer Kiaran McLaughlin could do was remain silently confident. After all, Invasor’s victories in the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, and Whitney stamped him as something pretty special, too. Well, we all know what happened there.
So, here we are again with a similar scenario: the budding 3-year-old superstar against the reigning Horse of the Year and the biggest name in the older horse division. But has anyone seen McLaughlin lurking about with a sly grin on his face? He’s been here before, and now he could be back again.
Has anyone forgotten about Divine Park? All this McLaughlin-trained colt has done is win the Westchester Handicap in a blazing 1:32 3/5, the third fastest mile ever run in New York and co-fourth-fastest mile ever run on dirt, anywhere, and come right back and defeat Commentator in the Metropolitan Handicap for his third straight win. So, how come it’s as if he’s invisible in this picture? Yes, he’s been out of action since the Met Mile, just as Invasor was out from the Whitney to the Classic. And yes, he could be nothing more than a terrific miler, but what if he can stretch out another eighth of a mile? Why is a horse with his talent and limitless future being totally ignored in all this talk of a Woodward showdown, just as Invasor was ignored?
Anyway, this is all pure speculation anyway. Curlin’s owner Jess Jackson has never said anything that would lead one to believe he’s thinking about the Woodward, nor has Big Brown’s connections. But Mike Iavarone would love nothing more than to get in a shootout with Curlin for all the marbles. So, in case there is talk of it, I just thought it was an appropriate time to mention Divine Park’s name before he and McLaughlin sneak up on everyone and ruin the party, just as Invasor and McLaughlin did in 2006. Now, I’m not comparing Divine Park to Invasor by any means, but he’s still a horse who shouldn’t be ignored.
Here is another interesting, but unlikely scenario: Music Note in the Travers, instead of the Alabama. Again, it’s not likely to happen, but A.P. Indy out of a Sadler’s Wells mare; ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:01 3/5 in the CCA Oaks, last quarter in :24 1/5, winning in hand by 11 lengths. Is there a colt other than Big Brown who is capable of matching that performance? No one has seen one yet. If Big Brown does run in the Travers, then never mind. And I still think Harlem Rocker could be special. But I’m just tossing it around for fun.