Saturday afternoon, on a day when Saratoga Race Course will offer a record of more than $1.7 million in purses, one such hero will make his Spa seasonal debut when Tracy Farmer’s Commentator enters the starting gate against 10 rivals for the 81st running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap for three-year-olds and up at nine furlongs.
Saturday’s races, which will be televised live by ABC (4 – 6 p.m., Eastern), will make up a guaranteed $500,000 all-stakes Pick 4. The Whitney, race 10 on the 11-race card, will go to post at approximately 5:46 p.m.
Commentator, who will be making his 20th career start in the Whitney, is a credit to Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito’s ability to manage a horse. A seven-year-old Distorted Humor gelding, the New York-bred Commentator has thrived on having his races spaced out and always shows up fresh and ready for a fight.
At Saratoga, Commentator has won three of five starts, including the 2005 Whitney, in which defeated eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam by a neck. This year, a Whitney victory would be extra special. Should he win, he would stand alone as the second-oldest horse to take this important race. Five-time Horse of the Year Kelso is the oldest horse to win the Whitney and he did that in 1965, when at the age of 8, he won the race for the second time.
“Commentator is like (former heavyweight boxing champion) George Foreman,” Zito said. “He gets older but keeps coming up at a high level. He has his issues, but we have learned to space out his races and give him the time he needs. When he gets the time he needs, he usually comes up with his race. That’s all we ever ask: for Commentator to be Commentator.”
If Commentator is the old man of Saturday’s Whitney, the youngster is Fox Hill Farms Inc.’s Solar Flare, an Argentina-bred son of 1991 Hopeful winner Salt Lake. Trained in his native country by Juan Carlos Etchechoury, Solar Flare joined trainer Larry Jones’ stable earlier this year.
“It took him so long to come to my barn, I thought they rode him up from Argentina,” Jones said. “He had to clear quarantine in Florida and all that stuff before I got him at the Fair Grounds.
“It took him a while to get used to the North American way of doing things, but you can see that he turned out to be a very good student, and he is not quite a full 4-year-old.”
Solar Flare’s American debut in this country was a victory at Delaware Park on June 3 at a mile and seventy yards. Jones was so impressed with that effort that he ran him back in the Grade 1, 1 ¼-mile Suburban Handicap presented by Shadwell Farm at Belmont Park on June 28. There, he fought hard and ran second by a half-length to Frost Giant.
“He doesn’t train the way he races,” Jones said. “You see him in the mornings, and there is nothing he does that turns your head. But in his first race, we saw how tough he was and then he came back in the Suburban.
“I haven’t run all the numbers yet, but off his last race, he seems to be a horse that belongs with these other ones.”
Trainer John Kimmel is running an extremely fresh Timber Reserve, who will be making his first start since he beat one horse in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream on January 6.
“He had a problem with his frog, the base of his frog, which kept splitting open,” said Kimmel, referring to the V-shaped pliable support structure on the bottom of the hoof. “It wasn’t perfect when he ran in the Pennsylvania Derby. In the winner’s circle, I was like, ‘Where’s that blood coming from?’ He had torn the rest of it off. Every time it grew out, which took two months, it would split again, so it was very frustrating.
“So I called Dr. Scott Morrison from Rood and Riddle (Equine Hospital) in Kentucky, and he came down (to Florida) in January after he had run that clunky race. It looked okay, but it was still bothering him. He cauterized it and designed a shoe for him; basically, he’s been taking care of it on a monthly basis. Now, it looks perfect.”
Timber Reserve has been training very well at Belmont Park and could be a factor on the lead, along with wet-weather specialist Tasteyville.
“Unfortunately, everyone thinks of the division as being a little bit on the soft side,” Kimmel said. “Sure, we would have liked to have had a prep, but we figure we’ll use this, maybe get a race under his belt, and maybe come back in the Woodward. This horse runs very good fresh. He’s a beautiful horse, very impressive looking. I think he’s a horse that’s capable of taking it up a notch from where he was last year whether it’s this Saturday or some Saturday in the future.”
Grade 1 winner Student Council, third-place Suburban finisher Rising Moon, Garde 1 Donn Handicap runner-up A.P, Arrow and stablemate, Cowtown Cal, a Grade 2 winner; Grade 3 Salvator Mile winner Notional and Grasshopper, runner-up to Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in last year’s Travers are all dangerous players, especially if the pace becomes too hot up front.
And, finally, Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, the “Giant Killer” whose most famous upset was with Onion in the 1973 Whitney, when he beat Triple Crown winner Secretariat, has entered Merchant Marine. A 4-year-old Tiznow gelding, Merchant Marine will carry 113 pounds, getting a seven-pound break from Commentator.
The field for Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney:
PP. HORSE TRAINER JOCKEY WGT.
1. Commentator Nick Zito John Velazquez 120
2. Solar Flare (ARG) Larry Jones Gabe Saez 115
3. Notional Mark Hennig Edgar Prado 116
4. Cowtown Cal Todd Pletcher Rafael Bejarano 114
5. Merchant Marine H. Allen Jerkens Rajiv Maragh 113
6. Tasteyville Patrick Kelly Mike Luzzi 115
7. Rising Moon Richard Dutrow Jr. Cornelio Velasquez 115
8. Grasshopper Neil Howard Robby Albarado 116
9. A.P. Arrow Todd Pletcher Ramon Dominguez 116
10. Student Council Steve Asmussen Shaun Bridgmohan 117
11. Timber Reserve John Kimmel Javier Castellano 115