Pedigree gives Commissioner shot at Belmont distance

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 2, 2014 


    What: Final leg of Triple Crown

    When: 6:52 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Elmont, N.Y.

Stop Elliott Walden if you've heard this one before.

The case that the president of WinStar Farm makes for Belmont Stakes hopeful Commissioner has a familiar ring to it. It's the tale of a colt who looked like a contender after opening his season with an allowance win at Gulfstream Park, couldn't get his form together to make the Kentucky Derby but instead let his pedigree shine in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Four years ago, WinStar Farm's Drosselmeyer capped off that scenario with an upset victory in the Belmont Stakes, fulfilling the promise initially heaped upon him early in the season.

While Commissioner brings a similar lead-in to his own Belmont Stakes quest this Saturday, winning the 2014 edition of the 1½-mile race is going to require every bit of regal blood he can conjure.

If there is a horse in the expected Belmont lineup who was born to travel that route of ground, Commissioner is that specimen. Most recently second in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10, the bay colt is from the final crop of 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy and is out of a mare by Touch Gold, himself the spoiler of Silver Charm's Triple Crown attempt in 1997.

Commissioner will try to channel both his sire and grandsire this weekend as Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome is expected to be an overwhelming favorite to take the Belmont and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. California Chrome has a substantial class edge on his would-be challengers, but the classic test where pedigree most comes into play is the 12-furlong behemoth known as "The Test of Champions."

"We always felt like this would be the best chance he would have to win a classic," Walden said after Commissioner worked 4 furlongs in company in 49.86 seconds on Sunday. "That is why we've been looking forward to this race since January. We're excited to see him run 1½ miles."

When Commissioner defeated well-regarded Top Billing in his season debut, a 1 1⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 3, the bay colt shot onto several early-season lists of leading contenders on the Kentucky Derby trail.

However, his forays against graded stakes company didn't back up his initial flashes. After running sixth in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, Commissioner was a well-beaten third in the Sunland Derby after bobbling at the start and could manage only a sixth-place run in the Grade I Arkansas Derby.

"I think the Sunland race was a bit of a debacle," Walden said. "Going out there was something we tried to do to get points (for the Kentucky Derby) because we always felt like he'd be at his best at 1¼ miles to 1½ miles. When we finished third instead of first or second it kind of threw things a little bit sideways.

"And he didn't run well at Arkansas," Walden continued. "His bridle came off (in the paddock) and he wasn't nervous, but he was just kind of bull-headed in the paddock and I'm not sure if that took away from him or not. But neither one of those races were good enough to get him into the Derby, and rightly so."

With the first leg of the Triple Crown out of the picture, the new agenda for WinStar and trainer Todd Pletcher became getting Commissioner on track for a second-half season surge.

Over a sealed, sloppy track in the Peter Pan, Commissioner advanced from fourth to run second to Tonalist — who is also slated to contest the Belmont — showing enough that day to solidify a run back in the track's signature test.

The Belmont has a history of upstart winners that in hindsight turned out to be pedigree plays, from Birdstone in 2004 to Jazil in 2006 and, yes, Drosselmeyer in 2010.

The only hole that seemingly can be picked in California Chrome's six-race win streak is the lack of stamina up front in his pedigree.

Whether or not he is good enough, Commissioner's bloodlines have ordained him to be in this spot.

"Obviously (California Chrome) has dominated his competition so it would be foolish to think that you're going to beat him until you do," Walden said. "But strange things happen in this race. There are a lot of good horses that have been beat in here, and I think with the third race in five weeks (for California Chrome), there are some fresh horses in there that are a bit of a danger."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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