Photo: chelsea durand, NYRA
“Let's see how the horse comes out of it, but of course we have to think about the Belmont Stakes. We're New York people and we're at Belmont." And with that quote coming from his veteran trainer, Christophe Clement, you can bet your bottom dollar that Tonalist will be in the starting gate when the bell rings for the third and final leg of America’s Triple Crown. After today’s performance in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes, I’d say the lightly raced son of Tapit has certainly earned the shot.
Making only his fourth lifetime start, the Robert S. Evans color bearer broke a step behind the early speed in the Peter Pan, but under confident guidance by Joel Rosario, Tonalist shot right to the lead much earlier than expected. It was an aggressive early move, coming on the backstretch, but one that the race favorite was more than ready to back up. Skipping over the sloppy Belmont Park main track, Tonalist never looked in danger, and ultimately came home a handy fourth-length winner over Commissioner in the traditional Belmont Stakes prep.
For Tonalist, today’s race marked his initial foray into stakes racing, but he had more than signaled his potential with a pair of sharp performances early this year in Gulfstream Park. A rallying 4th in his career debut, and only run as a juvenile, last fall at Aqueduct, Tonalist announced his successful intentions with a four-length romp over next-out winner Global Strike in a maiden special weight to begin his season. He quickly followed that up with a nice second in a super key February allowance race. That performance only furthered his reputation, especially after the winner, Constitution, came back to win the Florida Derby, and the 4th place finisher, Wicked Strong, won the Wood Memorial.
So after a brief ailment knocked him out of Kentucky Derby contention, Clement had Tonalist ready to roll back at his home base. Sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the field of seven, he showed no ill-effects from his three-month hiatus, and rolled home a four-length winner for the second time in his brief career. The final time of 1:48.30 for 1 1/8 miles was solid anyway you slice it, and his Kentucky Derby winning rider liked what he felt beneath him.
"He was handling everything fine. He broke good, galloped out good. When they opened the gate [he was a little unprepared] and then he figured it out quick,” said Rosario. “From there, I just had to tap him a little bit and he just took me all the way. He was doing it easy; he was doing it on his own. I don't think we were going that fast. He can go a mile and a half; I think he can run all day. He's a big horse with a long stride, when you get him in the bridle, the more you ask, the more he'll give."
If you will be backing him in four weeks time for the Belmont Stakes, you have to like Rosario’s assessment for Tonalist’s chances to stay the trip. While no horse has won the Peter Pan-Belmont Stakes combo since A.P. Indy more than twenty years ago, today’s prep remains an important feeder to the big one. Most recently Drosselmeyer and Fly Down exited the same prep (called the Dwyer that year) to finish first and second in the 2010 Belmont Stakes.
While Tonalist will likely have big fish to fry in the likes of California Chrome, Danza, Commanding Curve, and Wicked Strong, if he is to become a Belmont winner, there is plenty here to like. He has an excellent stamina influence on his female side with the strong Evans’ bloodlines of Pleasant Colony and His Majesty. He has a successful race over the track, and best of all, Tonalist is getting better with each and every start. Go ahead and add his name to the list of serious candidates laying in wait to derail the bid of California Chrome, if indeed we get to New York with the Triple Crown on the line.