The 66th running of the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap, at nine furlongs on the dirt, will be run Sept. 20 at Suffolk Downs, one of the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In races leading up to the Oct. 25 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park.
The 3-5 morning line favorite, Commentator, owned by Tracy Farmer and trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, has already qualified for the Classic by virtue of the 7-year-old gelding's win in the July 26 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga. It was the second Whitney win for Commentator, having defeated Horse of the Year St. Liam by a desperate nose in 2005.
Facing Commentator, who will be ridden by regular pilot John Velazquez, will be six other horses, including second-favorite Dr. Pleasure, at 7-2, an easy winner of an Aug. 10 allowance race at Saratoga for trainer John Ward; invaders Cuba (6-1) and Won Awesome Dude (8-1); and locals Beck and Call (20-1), Volcanic Force (20-1), and Riversrunrylee (15-1).
Commentator has been beset by several minor foot problems over his career in addition to two cannon bone surgeries performed by Dr. Larry Bramlage in Kentucky. But, given time, the son of Distorted Humor has always bounced back to throw in huge races from sprint distances to nine furlongs, making him a favorite of Farmer and Zito.
“To win the Whitney this year was one of my best moments in racing’ indescribable" said Farmer, who is looking forward, with his wife Carol, to seeing the historic sights of Boston. "He told us with his last work (47 4/5 seconds) that he needs to race and when he starts biting Nick (Zito), we know we need to find a spot. We take things a race at a time. This could be his last race, you never know," said Farmer.
“We won't run Commentator if he's not in winning form,"continued the Midway, Ky., resident. Whether it's now or at 10, we don't know. He just keeps coming back and running. He's almost like my child and when the time comes to retire him, I have the perfect paddock for him at my farm back home."
However, if Commentator breaks well from post 2 Saturday, with the local speed horses outside of him, Volcanic Force from post 5 and Riversrunrylee in post 7, Commentator should be able to dictate the early fractions.
Rather than being disheartened, Ward of Dr. Pleasure, who will stalk the early pace of Commentator, said, "Well, we're in post 6 and if the horses to both sides of us clear early and set out for Commentator, it will help us. It will be a fair event and we're improving."
Bred by John Oxley, of Monarchos fame, the son of Thunder Gulch horse was always cut out to be a good one, being the first foal from champion filly Beautiful Pleasure. Dr. Pleasure finished third in last year's MassCap, behind Brass Hat and Fairbanks.However, after two losing efforts at Gulfstream Park this winter, Dr. Pleasure was found to have an entrapped epiglottis, unusual at the age of five, and underwent laser surgery in early May, following the Keeneland spring meeting.
"He's been a different horse since," said Ward, "training five-six lengths better than before, not to mention his allowance win at Saratoga. It was a pretty quality field and our horse ran a good time, finished strong, and was effortless in his win. What scares me about Commentator, though, is if someone doesn't go with him in the middle segment of the race, he will be tough. I hope a few of the locals go with him early."
Ward's wife, Donna, who saddled Dr. Pleasure in last year's MassCap, will be in the Suffolk paddock again Saturday, while Ward will be at the Super Derby (gr. II) in Louisiana to cinch the girth on improving 3-year-old Forest Command. Keeping familial peace, as well as consistency, Ward ended by saying, "Donna gets to eat lobster tails for the second year in a row, while I get to eat crawfish. But, it all depends on your taste."
One horse with a puncher's chance is Won Awesome Dude, a 5-year-old by Awesome Again , trained by Michael Mareina, and owned by Kuehne Racing, led by the Texas golfing family of father Ernest, and offspring Trip, a top amateur, and Hank and Kelli, PGA touring pros.
Injured late in his 2-year-old year, he didn't start until the age of four at Lone Star in a $20,000 claiming race, where he won for fun. Since then, he has won or placed in seven of 10 races and earning $192,407, most recently winning the Claiming Crown Jewell in August in Minnesota.
Why is Mareina taking this chance? "This horse, who was originally prepping for the Queen's Plate before his injury, has been racing solid, game to his competition. With some of the heavy hitters waiting for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and other races, he's run good enough numbers to compete here."
We'll find out on Saturday, in East Boston, at 5:45 p.m. If Commentator doesn't start cleanly from the gate, the longshot owners could be buying the lobsters. But, don't bet on it happening.
$500,000 Massachusetts Handicap, 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Odds
1. Beck and Call, Tammi Piermarini, 20-1
2. Commentator, John Velazquez, 3-5
3. Won Awesome Dude, Casey Lambert, 8-1
4. Cuba, Pedro Cotto Jr., 6-1
5. Volcanic Force, Clifford Dooley, 20-1
6. Dr. Pleasure, Cornelio Velasquez, 7-2
7. Riversrunrylee, Pedro Gonzalez, 15-1