The classy sprinter Commentator was able to stretch his speed all the way to the wire under Gary Stevens in Saturday's $750,000 Whitney Handicap (gr. I), digging in to hold off Saint Liam by a neck at Saratoga Race Course.
It was the 4-year-old gelding Commentator's first win around two turns, although he had only one previous try, and it broke the ice for trainer Nick Zito, who had been winless at his home track so far this season. Zito, who will be inducted into racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga on Monday, also earned his first Whitney victory. The final time was 1:48 1/5 for the 1 1/8-mile test.
"This win was special because of Monday," Zito said after ending an eventful day on a great note. "This is probably the most important victory of my life. How can I thank God for this victory?"
Commentator was coming off an eye-catching 16 1/2-length win in an allowance race at Belmont Park June 29, his first start in more than 16 months. He has won seven of eight starts in his career.
Stevens, riding the New York-bred son of Distorted Humor
for the first time, restrained his charge early as they broke behind Saint Liam initially before edging to the front, completing the opening quarter-mile in :23 2/5. The race quickly broke down into a two-horse affair as Commentator led the 7-10 favorite Saint Liam by five lengths after half-mile in :46 2/5 and by nearly six lengths after six furlongs in a 1:09 3/5.
As they came off the turn, Saint Liam, already being hard ridden by Edgar Prado, began to slowly cut into the advantage. Under furious urging from Prado, Saint Liam edged ever closer as they progressed through the lane. Stevens reached back to give Commentator a couple of right-handed whacks in the closing stages, and the tiring chestnut gave all he had to barely prevail over Saint Liam, who made a desperate surge in the last few jumps.
"I didn't know if Commentator could go the distance," Zito said. "Commentator is an unusual horse."
Commentator, who ran as part of the Tracy Farmer-owned entry with third-place finisher Sir Shackleton, carried 116 pounds, six less than the top-weighted Saint Liam.
"From the three-eighths pole, I was very happy after what had gone on earlier in the race," Stevens said. "Commentator was very manageable and cooperative. I turned into the stretch with a lot of horse, and he finished up nice. I'm so happy for Nick (Zito). A lot of things have happened the last couple of weeks, and the meet started out a little slow for him. He's going into the Hall of Fame on Monday, and people don't know that there is a lot of pressure involved in that. For him to win the Whitney, I'm more tickled for him than I am for myself."
Zito said Commentator would probably wait for the Woodward (gr. I) at Belmont Park Sept. 10 for his next start, then would consider the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) Oct. 29 at Belmont.
Saint Liam, ranked as the leading older horse in the nation by many experts, was coming off an impressive win in the Stephen Foster (gr. I) at Churchill Downs June 18 and was looking for his fourth win at the nine-furlong distance. In Saint Liam's only other start on Saratoga's main track, the 5-year-old son of Saint Ballado ran sixth in allowance race almost two years ago.
"He ran well," said trainer Richard Dutrow. "I knew we could (last nine furlongs). I didn't know if Commentator could. I'm not going to complain about nothing. I'm proud of him. It's just a shame we couldn't win. Hopefully, we'll live to fight another day."
Commentator won for the third time in as many starts at Saratoga. He took the first two races of his career against state-bred rivals at the Spa. In his only previous graded stakes try – in the 1 1/8-mile Hal's Hope (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park in January – he faded to seventh behind Badge of Silver, the only loss of his career.
The $450,000 winner's share increased Commentator's earnings to $660,092.
Michael Martinez bred the winner, who is out of the Storm Bird mare Outsource and was purchased for $135,000 at Fasig-Tipton's Kentucky July sale in 2002.
The second choice in the field of eight, he paid $8.40, $3, and $3.60. Saint Liam, who also won the Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream this year, returned $2.50 and $2.20 while completing the $16.80 exacta. It was nine lengths back to Sir Shackleton, who was ridden by Javier Castellano.
Swingforthefences, Limehouse, Eurosilver, Wiggins, and Pollard's Vision rounded out the order.