It’s the ones that can hold together long enough to have lengthy careers that are most remembered. Most of those with large followings have gained the respect and affection of the public because they campaigned for five or six years.
The six-, seven-, or eight-year-old thoroughbreds have been fortunate to have their health. And they have been blessed with generous owners and tame trainers whose ego or agenda hasn’t been all-consuming.
The old-timers are almost always geldings. If they are successful on the track — and can stay out of harm’s way — there is no reason to prematurely retire them.
One of the grandest of those with five or more years at racing had his moment locally at Charles Town.
Commentator, the svelte and toned chestnut, came to the first Charles Town Classic in 2009. The race’s distance was more than he usually tried, but the $1 million purse was lure enough for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito and owners Tracy and Carol Farmer.
Most noted as a sprinter, Commentator came out running hard and assumed a pressured lead that was short only because Researcher — the local hero — was only about a length behind.
Commentator kept his small advantage, always pushed by Researcher, until the far turn. Trainer Jeff Runco’s Researcher accelerated and burst past Commentator in a matter of yards . . . and then moved smartly through the stretch to a long, comfortable win.
Commentator steadily lost ground and finished fourth or fifth.
That million-dollar trip had been too long for the sprinting son of highly successful sire Distorted Humor.
Zito didn’t have Commentator go that far often.
And just a while later, during the summer of 2009 at Saratoga, the blaze-orange eight-year-old ran third in the Whitney Stakes (a race he had already won twice) and was retired.
Zito certainly hadn’t pushed him. Or overextended him. Or abused him in any way.
When he was retired, Commentator had raced only 24 times in an on-track career that went on for seven years. He had 14 wins and totaled a crisp $2,029,845 in earnings.
He had been foaled in New York state. Outsource was his mother. She had never raced. But his sire was so successful that even today at age 19 his stud fee is $100,000 per live foal.
His breeder, Michael Martinez, sent him to a Keeneland as a young weanling and his auction price was $45,000. The next year as a yearling he went back to auction and this time commanded $135,000 in the ring.
The Farmers bought him that second time.
And Nick Zito became his trainer right from the time he set foot on a race track for his first acclimation with a training surface.
Zito was masterful in teaching the willing gelding his lessons.
Through his racing years, Commentator always made full recoveries from foot injuries that at times required routine operations. Zito knew when his pupil was ready to resume a full training load.
“There’s no speed like him. Who is their right mind would go with that horse? Who could? Is there a faster horse in the world?” the old school trainer would ask rhetorically.
As alluded to, he won the famous nine-furlong Whitney Stakes two times.
In 2005, he had the eventual Horse of the Year, Saint Liam, as his main competition.
It was August 5 and an out-for-the-day crowd counted at 32,287 shoehorned into the 150-year-old Saratoga grandstand and shaded grounds.
Commentator, as was his usual bent, set the early pace. His rider that afternoon was Gary Stevens. Just when it appeared that Saint Liam had wrung most of the energy out of Commentator, the willing bronze champion had Stevens dip farther down into his well of energy and find the resolve to hold off the bid of his rival.
In his last two years at it, Commentator was ridden by recent Hall of Fame inductee John Velazquez. Just to show his worthiness hadn’t been diminshed, he carried Velazquez to a Gulfstream Park track record in winning a one-mile race by about 14 lengths in 1:33.71.
The Grade II Richter Scale Stakes went to him by another 14 lengths. As he rollicked through the stretch, the track announcer gushed, “Here comes Commentator, the fastest horse in America.” Zito concurred.
His second winning success in the Whitney Stakes came on a surface that was thick with deep mud. He winged away and seemed to skip over the wet track becoming the second oldest Whitney champion at age seven. The legendary Kelso had won the same event at age eight.
His career was closed after that third-place in the 2009 Whitney.
The Farmers gave Saratoga enough notice of his leaving racing for that track to hold a day for him and even change the name of a stakes race that same afternoon to the “Commentator Stakes”.
Said Zito, “He’s as gallant as can be. He’s a real treasure. When he was on, he was as good as any horse in America. I think those two wins in the Whitney proved that.
“He was as good as can be.”
The Farmers returned him to their Kentucky base. And it wasn’t too long before they donated him to Old Friends, a well-regarded retirement facility for thoroughbreds where the horses can live out their years being cared for and seen by thousands that yearly visit the 92 acres just outside Lexington and near to Keeneland Race Course.
“I think overseer Michael Blowen does a great job, and we’re going to to be helping them however we can,” said Tracy Farmer. “We want a place for horses such as Commentator to retire, and we want Old Friends to be very successful.”
Blowen, who has seen the number of retirees he has at Old Friends grow to more than 90, said when Commentator came to his black-fenced paddocks, “To have a great athlete like Commentator with his huge fan base come to Old Friends is like having Elvis in the building.
“I also want to thank Nick Zito for keeping him in such remarkable condition. He is retiring perfectly sound, and that alone is a testament to his great training and care over the years.”
Commentator even returned to New York state this past summer where he spent several months at a facility similar to Blowen’s acreage named “Old Friends at Cabin Creek”.
People attending the six weeks of racing at Saratoga could visit Commentator because the facility is just outside the small town.
Retired at age eight. Given a perfect place to live. Retired full of good health.
And he had raced in the first Charles Town Classic in 2009.