Who's the best horse in the country? The debate has raged over the last few months, with the field including Big Brown, Curlin and no one else. It seems, though, that there's another horse that needs to be thrown into the mix.
Though he didn't beat anything Saturday, Commentator was again spectacular in the MassCap at Suffolk Downs. He won the race by a record 14 lengths and earned a 110 Beyer figure. He's raced just five times this year and three of his four wins have been by 13 lengths or more. His other win came in the Whitney, where he soundly beat a good field by 4 ¾ lengths while earning a 120 Beyer figure. Even the one time he was beaten this year, in the Met Mile, he ran a terrific race. He dueled through an opening half-mile run in :44 2/5 and held on for second behind Divine Park.
He's got the fastest Beyer number in the country at races up to a mile and the fastest Beyer in races run at more than a mile. Based on figures, Curlin and Big Brown aren't the fastest horses in America. Commentator is.
That doesn't mean he could beat Curlin or Big Brown, especially in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He's spent much of his career sprinting and has never tried a mile-and-a-quarter, a distance that may be beyond his reach. He's also at his best when he gets an uncontested lead, something that doesn't figure to happen with $5 million on the line.
There's also no guarantee that Commentator will try the Classic. Nick Zito keeps telling everyone that he doesn't like synthetic surfaces and is reluctant to send any of his horses this year to Santa Anita to race over the new Pro-Ride synthetic surface there. First, though, he might want to consult with owner Tracy Farmer. The two don't seem to be on the same page.
"Commentator has trained over synthetic tracks at Keeneland and he loves them," Farmer said. "To me, the fact that the Breeders' Cup is being run on a synthetic surface is a plus for him."
It's been a terrific year for Commentator and his connections. The 7-year-old gelding pulled off a special feat, winning his second Whitney three years after his first. And Zito and Farmer have proven that they're first-class individuals who have their hearts in the right place. The decision to race in the MassCap was based largely on their desire to reward Suffolk Downs for the zero-tolerance policy on horse slaughter. Any Suffolk-based owner of trainer caught sending a horse to slaughter will be denied stall space.
"Commentator will carry that torch," Zito told the Associated Press after the MassCap, referring to how he plans to use Commentator's career as a platform for his personal anti-slaughter views. "I hope Suffolk Downs will be a leader and the other racetracks will follow suit. It's one of the most ugliest things, horse slaughter."
Suffolk Downs, a track that, without slot machines, is in survival mode, put on a great show Saturday. With Commentator as the star attraction, a crowd of 17,712 showed up. Boston racing fans will always turn out to see good horses.
Zito won't say what's next for Commentator, but there's only one place where he belongs. Commentator deserves a chance to run in the Classic, where a victory might even mean Horse of the Year, and he deserves a chance to prove that he is the sport's best horse. That can only happen in the Breeders' Cup.
There still are some tough horses out there. It's just that you have to go to a harness track to find them.
While top thoroughbred trainers continue to go to ridiculous extremes to pamper their horses and race them as little as possible, their counterparts in harness racing aren't afraid to ask a lot from their horses. Take Little Brown Jug winner Shadow Play.
Shadow Play won an elimination race of the Little Brown Jug Thursday in Delaware, Ohio, which meant that he still had to return some 90 minutes later to compete in another race, the Jug Final. You have to win twice in one day to be crowned Jug champion. The Jug, the second leg of the Pacing Triple Crown, is one of only a handful of races left where heat racing is a requirement.
One problem: Shadow Play was lame after his elimination race. But trainer Ian Moore, who is also a veterinarian, and a blacksmith went to work on the 3-year-old and fixed his troubled right front hoof. He came back for the finals and dominated the competition. It was his 20th start this year.
That's one tough horse.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.