Saturday's $500,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park managed to pry four horses out of the comfort of their stalls for the dubious task of taking on the race's two brilliant stars, Commentator and Saint Liam, the one-two finishers in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I).
Well, sort of four horses. Two are allowance sprinters, Crafty Player and Show Boot, both trained by Saint Liam's conditioner, Richard Dutrow Jr., who probably will use one of them to try to soften up Commentator. Show Boot is a recent $75,000 claim who is based at Aqueduct, while Crafty Player will make the trip up the Garden State Parkway in order to provide his assistance to Saint Liam, who was victimized by Commentator in the Whitney. Dutrow said immediately after the Whitney that he made a mistake not putting in a "rabbit" to run with Commentator, but he would not make the same mistake in the Woodward.
So, here we are: Commentator vs. Saint Liam and friends in a showdown that could decide the early favorite for the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Commentator still is not certain for the Classic, but a victory by Saint Liam would all but assure the son of Saint Ballado the role of favorite for America's richest race.
Of the two others entered in the Woodward, Sir Shackleton is from the barn of Commentator's trainer, Nick Zito, and like his illustrious stablemate, is owned by Tracy Farmer. The final horse, Shaniko, an 11 1/2-length allowance winner over a weak allowance field at Saratoga, is not a definite starter, and could wind up heading for the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II) at Turfway Park.
Of this group, only Sir Shackleton is a proven closer, so there could be quite a free-for-all up front in the one-turn Woodward.
To make matters more interesting, Saint Liam and Commentator drew next to each other, in posts three and four, while the two rabbits, in the unlikely chance both run, will break from the two outside posts, meaning Commentator will have Dutrow horses on both sides of him. He and jockey Gary Stevens will have to watch to the outside for any left-hand turns after the break.
Saint Liam has proven himself a top-class horse, with victories this year in the grade I Donn and Stephen Foster Handicaps. But it was his gut-wrenching battle with Ghostzapper in last year's Woodward, in which he was beaten a neck in 1:46.38, that makes him so dangerous Saturday. He has the speed to run with Commentator, as he showed in last year's Woodward, but Dutrow would rather see him rate off the pace to set himself up for the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic.
Commentator, however, has had the lead at every call of his races and appears more one-dimensional. The son of Distorted Humor
has exceptional speed and can carry it a distance, and prior to the Whitney, all of his six victories were huge blowouts.
Shaniko, trained by Todd Pletcher, has always shown promise, but he's been trounced in his only three stakes appearances, and was made the odds-on favorite last time out only because the odds-on favorite, Dwango, trained by Zito, was scratched at the gate.
Don't overlook Sir Shackleton, who should love 1 1/8 mile around one turn, and if there is a serious burnout on the front end, he could be closing in down the stretch. He doesn't have the speed or brilliance to match up with the top two, as he showed in the Whitney, finishing nine lengths behind Saint Liam in third. But there is the possibility that this race will set up better for him. $500,000 Woodward (gr. I, race 10, 5:43 p.m.), 3 & up, 1 1/8 miles
PP. HORSE, TRAINER, JOCKEY
1. a-Sir Shackleton, Nick Zito, Rafael Bejarano
2. Shaniko, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez
3. Saint Liam, Richard Dutrow Jr., Jerry Bailey
4. a-Commentator, Nick Zito, Gary Stevens
5. b-Show Boot, Richard Dutrow Jr., Raul Rojas
6. b-Crafty Player, Richard Dutrow Jr., Rudy Rodriguez Each carries 126 pounds.