by Nick Hahn
Despite, in part, playing the role of spoiler in last year’s Triple Crown bid by California Chrome, the trainer of Tonalist has endorsed American Pharoah’s campaign, which is a bit easier when you don’t have a horse in the race.
“I wish him the best of luck,” said trainer Christophe Clement. “It’s not easy. It’s a good thing not to be easy. It makes it special…makes it magic. I, like any other race fans, am very excited about it.”
Last year’s Belmont Stakes winner, though a Kentucky-bred bred by Woodslane Farm, spent the first 18 months or so of his life in The Plains, Virginia. Tonalist is the 5-2 favorite in the $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap (G1) run prior to the featured $1.5 million Belmont Stakes where American Pharaoh (3-5) seeks horse racing immortality. After a six-month layoff after finishing fifth in last year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic (G1), Tonalist impressed Clement in the way that he won the $150,000 Westchester (G3) by over three lengths to begin his four-year-old campaign.
“I’m delighted with the way he’s training. He seems to be doing very well,” assessed Clement. “He won the Westchester. He’s trained forwardly since that race. I would not trade him with anybody else.”
Owned by Robert “Shel” Evans, Tonalist is a horse that at times has difficulty getting heard, although he was a Horse of the Year candidate until late last season. It might be, perhaps, his punishment for silencing the Triple Crown din last year when Tonalist California Chrome, who ended up dead-heating for fourth.
“I knew he was a really good horse from the beginning,” recalled Clement. “One of the best three-year-olds of last year. I think he came back well, which good horses do. He’s a major, major horse. He’s always been a major, major horse for me.”
As a part of Centennial Farms, the Virginia Thoroughbred Association owner of the year, Maggie Bryant starts Wicked Strong (8-1) in the same Metropolitan. They’ll face Bayern (7-2), the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner who disappointed in his first outing of the season (and who, coincidentally, is owned by Vienna, VA residetn Kaleem Shah. Virginia Racing Commission chairman, J Sargent Reynolds even owns a small portion of Honor Code (6-1) in the field. Bryant also has Travers Stakes winner, V.E. Day (6-1), in the mile and a half $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational (G2).
Clement also trained three-time Eclipse Award winning Gio Ponti, a sunny-day winner of the Virginia Derby in 2008. Clement said that he didn’t know the reasons or politics of Colonial’s closure, but doesn’t like the result.
“Whenever we lose a race track, where you got major races, it’s always very sad,” explained Clement. “When you lose a track that has major races, it’s always sad. It has the Virginia Derby and the All Along. I hope it comes back at some stage.”
If it doesn’t, then War Dancer would be known perpetually as the reigning Virginia Derby winner. The very dark bay was trained by Kenneth McPeek when his captured the Virginia Derby on what now stands at Colonial’s grand closing day. War Dancer is now in the barn of trainer Bill Mott, who has been impressed with War Dancer’s start to his five year old campaign. War Dancer is a respectable (5-1) in the $1 million, Grade 1 Manhattan, the race before the Belmont Stakes.
“He’s been good for us,” said Mott. “Hopefully the ten furlongs that he’s racing in tomorrow is what I’m hoping is his ideal distance, seems like it could be.”
War Dancer was a defiant frontrunner in the Man O’War (G1) run over the Belmont Park turf course in early May. He stubbornly sank to second instead of finding the wire ahead of Twilight Eclipse, also in this field.
“He fought on well last time, for sure,” praised Mott who will be asking jockey Jose Lezcano to change tactics. “Different set up in the race here tomorrow. There’s a little more speed so he’ll probably have to come off the pace. He’s got a decent cruising speed that should put him at least in a stalking position.
Unless Colonial rises from the ruins, The Manhattan may be the last of the large reunions of former Colonial Downs starters as it includes Hyper (12-1) from the 2013 Colonial Turf Cup, Finnegan’s Wake (4-1) from the 2012 Virginia Derby and Jack Milton (6-1) who ran third to War Dancer in the 2013 Virginia Derby. Also in the field is General A Rod (6-1), who, similar to Tonalist, spent a lot of his youth in Virginia being bred by Hare Forest of Orange County, Virginia.