Belmont Rewind: Tonalist takes another step

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The tasks looked just like that of any trainer with two horses in the same race.

Christophe Clement got the chamois, placed the pad, tightened the girth, spoke to the valet, asked the groom a question, gave 4-year-old colt Mr. Jenney a pat on the neck, watched him walk away from the stall and toward the walking ring in the Belmont Park paddock. Clement did it again for another 4-year-old colt, Red Vine. Chamois, pad, girth, valet, groom, pat, watch.

Then Clement hustled to the walking ring – crossing paths however briefly with the man he denied history to, Art Sherman – right by the Secretariat statue – and gave a leg up to Jose Lezcano. Next. Next? Number six. Clement knew his jockey, Joel Rosario, would be late. It was going to be OK, people said. Just wait. As the 10 others for Saturday’s 12th race entered the tunnel toward the main track, Rosario emerged – smiling and hustling with every step in boots, breeches and green-and-white silks.

Clement couldn’t pass on the opportunity. “Where have you been?” he said with mocking contempt and gusto. Rosario just smiled. Twenty minutes earlier, the men were in the Belmont Park winner’s circle after a career-defining moment. Now they were a trainer and a jockey, doing business together like normal. Clement gave Rosario a leg up, turned and – alone for a second – let out the longest, most-relieved, most-satisfied “Fshwooh” this side of a World Cup goalie after saving a penalty kick.

“It means a lot,” Clement said in the post-race news conference. “This race means a lot because it’s the Belmont and even if I’m French I consider myself a New Yorker and I will enjoy this for a while.”

Tonalist surges past Commissioner at the finish line. Tod Marks photo
Clement and Rosario upset the Belmont Stakes with Tonalist, thwarting California Chrome’s bid for a Triple Crown in front of 102,199 fans Saturday, June 7. Racing up close throughout, but charging like a fresh, free, deep closer in the stretch, the son of Tapit gave Clement his first classic win and second Grade 1 triumph. The 3-year-old colt needed every bit of the 1 1/2 miles to put his head in front of Commissioner, who was a length to the good of Medal Count. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome wound up fourth, beaten 1 3/4 lengths, while trying to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

The favorite was gallant, but beaten. He started awkwardly but quickly, got stepped on by Matterhorn leaving the gate and ran with a bloody gash in his right front heel. California Chrome rated just off the pace, as he did in the Derby and Preakness, and waited to surge. In the Triple Crown’s first two legs, he shifted gears and accelerated after about a mile – ending both races before anyone could mount a challenge. Saturday, he gave it a go by rallying outside horses in the stretch, but the challenged flattened out while Tonalist, Commissioner and Medal Count stayed on. California Chrome lost by less than 2 lengths, halting a winning streak at six, and sending Thoroughbred racing on another “Will it ever happen again?” tizzy about the Triple Crown.

California Chrome lost because he tore up his foot, because he started slowly, because he’s not an ideal mile-and-a-half horse, because he raced for the third time in five weeks, because . . . well, because it’s horse racing and he wasn’t the first one to the finish.

Fresher horses beat California Chrome Saturday, and co-owner Steve Coburn told the world what it felt like when interviewed immediately after the race. He was hurt, emotional, distraught, disappointed and over the top. Of course, he’d been the latter all along this Triple Crown ride so expecting anything different was wrong. Coburn can talk. He entertained with plenty of comments after the victories in the Derby and Preakness, talking, laughing, telling stories – loudly – everywhere he went. He said stuff when his horse won, and did so again when he lost. Eventually, Coburn went on Good Morning America twice, and got it right the second time.

Coburn has a point. His horse lost to fresher horses, but the races stand on their own. The Triple Crown is just a thing, like the Grand Slam in golf or tennis. The tournaments that make up the Grand Slam are independent and act accordingly though. Of course, if some clever racing leader came up with a scheme to force horses to run in more than one leg of the Triple Crown he’d be celebrated as a visionary.

Back to the Belmont.

California Chrome hoof
California Chrome’s right front heel shows effects of getting stepped on by Matterhorn after the start. Tod Marks photo
The race provided plenty in its 2:28.52. The inside three horses all broke in some form of a tangle. At the rail, Medal Count stumbled and jammed his front legs down hard. To his right, California Chrome hopped and lurched a little to his right. Beside him, Matterhorn broke inward and bounced into California Chrome, stepping across and catching the favorite’s hoof. On the far outside, in post 11, Tonalist broke comfortably and moved toward the front.

California Chrome and Victor Espinoza pressed early, found a position and a comfort zone, then let Commissioner clear and take over the lead. General A Rod drafted into second with California Chrome third on the inside. He never got outside of horses like he did in the Preakness, but was covered up, rating, relaxed though tugging just a bit on the reins. Tonalist drafted into position – third and outside the leaders on the long run up the backside.

On the far turn, Commissioner still led on the rail, followed by General A Rod and Tonalist three across. To their outside, after working his way out from behind horses, California Chrome was fourth. He had space, clear air and a chance – though he was going to lose ground. For a few, but only a few, strides in the stretch California Chrome looked like he might quicken up and pass them all but he got outrun from the furlong pole home. Tonalist, who won the Peter Pan at Belmont May 10, had the most energy late and got past Commissioner, second in the Peter Pan, in the final stride. Medal Count, in his first start since a troubled eighth in the Derby, finished third while California Chrome and Wicked Strong ended up in a dead heat for fourth.

The Triple Crown was dashed again, silencing the big crowd, disappointing the connections and giving ammunition to the theory that after 36 years without one, it’ll never happen again.

But don’t besmirch the Belmont winner. They write checks and cement legacies based on what happens on the track.

Tonalist won a classic, and continued a progression from maiden to Grade 1 classic winner in less than five months. The son of Tapit made his racing debut at Aqueduct Nov. 16 and finished fourth behind Belmont starter Matterhorn going a mile.

“As a 2-year-old, he was not an impressive type of horse – too tall, too leggy, needs time to fill out,” Clement said. “He was not a precocious, speedy type.”

Two months after his first start, the more mature 3-year-old colt thumped maidens at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park, winning by 4 lengths with a sweeping late charge.

In February, the Kentucky-bred finished second in the mother of all allowance races at Gulfstream. The first four finishers were Constitution, Tonalist, Mexikoma and Wicked Strong. Clement and owner Robert “Shell” Evans were thinking Derby and penciled in a return to New York for the Wood Memorial in April. Then Tonalist erased the plan by getting sick and bruising a hoof. Instead of the Derby or Preakness, he ran in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont – the week between the two classics – and won by an easy 4 lengths after racing near the led throughout.

He joined A.P. Indy, Danzig Connection, Coastal, Gallant Man and High Gun on the list of Peter Pan winners to subsequently take the Belmont.

Tonalist was bred in Kentucky by Woodslane Farm, which is owned by Rene and Lauren Woolcott of Virginia.

The Woolcotts bought Tonalist’s dam Settling Mist (in foal to Seeking The Gold) for $800,000 at Keeneland November in 2007. That filly, Settling For Gold, won twice for Woodslane and trainer Tim Ritchey. A 2009 filly by Smart Strike, Fancy Strike, lost three starts in 2012. Settling Mist aborted in 2010, and delivered Tonalist in 2011. While carrying the future Belmont winner, the mare was withdrawn from the Keeneland November sale of 2011. Two years ago, Tonalist (after spending a year or so at Woodslane) was in the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, but did not meet his reserve. Evans and advisor Patrick Lawley-Wakelin liked the bay colt’s type and his pedigree (his dam’s sire Pleasant Colony raced for Evans’ father Thomas Mellon Evans) and bought Tonalist privately. In another Mid-Atlantic connection, Evans sent Tonalist to his Courtland Farm in Easton, Md., after the Saratoga sale.

The Woolcotts campaign steeplechasers with trainer Jack Fisher and are involved in the organization and sponsorship of the Middleburg Spring race meet. Their jumpers include 2012 stakes winner Lion’s Double, multiple winner Brave Prospect and recent hurdle winner Mr. Starr’s Report among others.

That’s not Tonalist’s only connection to jump racing as his female family is peppered with steeplechase winners through the Schiff family’s Fox Ridge Farm. Settling Mist’s half-brother Devil’s Egg won over jumps for Fox Ridge, Tom Voss and jockey (turned trainer) Cyril Murphy. Key To The Bridge, a half-sister to Settling Mist’s dam Toll Fee, produced Grade 1 jump winner Petroski who won the New York Turf Writers Cup for Fox Ridge, Voss and jockey (turned trainer) Keith O’Brien in 1996.

The family is far more well known for its heady list of major flat winners including Plugged Nickle, Christiecat, Riskaverse, Cozzy Corner, Havre de Grace and others. Settling Mist didn’t live up to that legacy on the racetrack, winning just once in 19 starts for Fox Ridge, but she made up for it with Tonalist.

“I always believe in pedigree,” said Clement. “At some stage, the pedigree kicks in.”

Watch the Belmont.

See Tod Marks photos from Belmont Day.