In January, Tracy Farmer’s Commentator blistered to a new track record at Gulfstream Park as he trounced an outclassed field of five allowance competitors by 14 lengths. In March, he demolished six Richter Scale Sprint Handicap (gr. II) contenders while drawing off to win by 13 3/4 lengths. But the 7-year-old Distorted Humor gelding faces his steepest test of the season this Memorial Day, when he heads a field of nine in the $600,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park.
Entered to challenge Commentator for the $450,000 winner’s share – which would push the Nick Zito trainee’s earnings past the $1 million mark – are horses ranging in age from 3-year-old Z Humor, who ran 14th in the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), to 6-year-old Council Member.
The competition lessened a little when the undefeated Bustin Stones missed training time with a fever and was pulled from consideration for the race. Multiple graded stakes winner Monterey Jazz is also out, and those circumstances play right into Zito’s hand.
“Everything is good; he’s acting just as good as a horse can be,” Zito said. “You’ve always gotta beat them all; that’s the way I look at it. I’m just trying to do what we gotta do, but let’s put it this way – I’m getting my suit out for sure. No grade I (races) are easy; they never are. But he’s a great horse, and if he shows up – if he’s Commentator – he’ll win.”
Commentator has won four of six races at Belmont, and he will carry the high weight of 122 in the Met Mile. He also turned in the only third-place effort of his career there in last year’s Tom Fool Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. II). A horse who thrives upon space between his races, he has not run since winning the March 8 Richter Scale.
“Basically, spacing his races, giving him time to do what he’s got to do, that’s the main thing,’’ said Zito, who named jockey John Velazquez to ride. “I wanted to get a mile race somewhere, but I didn’t get anything. The Westchester (gr. III, April 30) would have been too close, so my choice was to just wait it out.
A horse who benefitted from good spacing and timing using the Westchester is James Barry’s Divine Park, a 4-year-old son of Chester House whose five-length win over the favored Grasshopper and third-place finisher Sightseeing in that event came on the heels of a March 28 allowance score going a mile and 70 yards on Aqueduct’s inner track for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Divine Park is a multiple graded stakes winner, having taken Aqueduct’s Withers Stakes (gr. III) last year as part of a three-race winning streak that included his maiden debut on dirt at Aqueduct and an allowance score over Keeneland’s Polytrack. He has won five of seven starts, and both losses came with valid excuses.
In the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita last December, the colt was coming off an eight-month layoff and drew the 14 hole. In spite of finishing ninth, he still closed five wide and was only five lengths behind the leader. In his next start, Laurel Park’s General George Handicap (gr. II), he lost all chance when he broke through the gate. He finished last in a seven-horse field.
“He had won a race at Keeneland on Polytrack, so we sent him to California figuring he would be able to handle the synthetic surface,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “But he drew the 14 hole and was wide the whole time. Plus, coming off the long layoff, he needed the race. Then, we went to Laurel, he broke through the gate, and that kind of rang his bell a little.
“He is a very nice horse, but he started out that way. He won his first three, including the Withers, so he is right where we thought he would be and he is doing fabulous. I would have liked a little more time, but 26 days is okay and it is the Met Mile, after all.”
Trainer Anthony Dutrow will saddle a pair, sending out Zayat Stables' Premium Wine and Michael Dubb’s Lord Snowdon.
“I’m very excited about running in the Met Mile,” said Dutrow, brother of trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., whose Big Brown will go for the Triple Crown in the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). “It’s an enormous opportunity to be able to run in a race as big as this one, and the thing is, I’m not in there with horses that can be overlooked. It’s not like I’m running 75-1 shots and people are saying, `What is he doing in there?’ This is a great, important race and I feel we’re in it with horses that belong.”
Premium Wine, a 4-year-old New York-bred son of Prime Timber, sports a 5-3-2 record from 11 starts and had two narrow losses to Bustin Stones. He was third in both the General George at Laurel and in Aqueduct’s April 5 Carter Handicap (gr. I), his most recent start.
Lord Snowdon, a 5-year-old Seeking the Gold gelding, will be making his 29th career start in the Met Mile. He was beaten a head in the General George and was fourth in the Carter.
“I have two horses who are both overachievers,” said Dutrow. “They started out like they weren’t supposed to be in this type of race, and yet they have kept getting better and better. They are training so well that I figured I had to take a chance in the Met Mile.”
Z Humor, the lone 3-year-old in a field of older horses, has not won a race since dead heating with Turf War in the Boyd Gaming’s Delta Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) last December. The Distorted Humor colt was 24 1/2 lengths back in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Bill Mott, who sends him to this event with only weight consideration (he carries 108) – and the fact that he was third behind War Pass and Pyro in last year’s one-mile Champagne Stakes (gr. I) – on his side.
$600,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I, race 10, approximate post 5:49 p.m.), one mile for older horses, dirt