Robert Evan's Tonalist rallied late to edge Commissioner, winning the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). California Chrome, bidding for the Triple Crown, finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong behind Medal Count (VIDEO).
The 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont at Belmont Park has been "heartbreak highway" for 3-year-olds since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown 36 years ago in 1978. Belmont reported an on-track attendance of 102,199 for the 13-race progam that included five other grade I events.
The time for the 12 furlongs in the $1.5 million event was 2:28.52. Tonalist, a son of Tapit —Settling Mist, by Pleasant Colony, was bred in Kentucky by Woodslane Farm.
WinStar Farm's Commissioner went for the early lead from post 8 and was able to dictate the early pace while being tracked by General a Rod, Tonalist, and California Chrome, who took a position inside behind the leaders. The early fractions were mild; :24.06 for the opening quarter-mile and :48.52 for the half.
Commissioner maintained the lead through six furlongs in 1:12.84 as Tonalist and General a Rod swapped positions just behind. Jockey Victor Espinoza then was forced to go around the leaders through one mile in 1:37.13.
On turn he was met by a rallying Medal Count and there several runners with a chance as they turned for home through 10 furlongs in 2:02.43. Commissioner, after opening a clear advantage, held resolute along the rail and was caught in the final few jumps by Tonalist, who was ridden by Joel Rosario.
"He was going easy," Rosario said of Tonalist. "I didn't want to be too far behind. When I got to the three-eighths pole I was a little confident. I was worried a little bit turning for home, but he started picking them up."
The winner returned $20.40, $9.60, and $7 across the board. Commissioner paid $23.20 and $13.20. Medal Count paid $13.20.
"As soon as he came out of the gate he was not the same," Espinoza said of California Chrome. "By the five-eighths pole he was just empty. Turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little flat down the lane.
"He ran back-to-back races at different tracks—and all those fresh horses."
"When Victor started to squeeze on him he didn't respond," said Alan Sherman, son of trainer Art Sherman. "He was worn out, I think. Victor seemed to think he handled the surface fine."
Later it was determined that California Chrome grabbed a quarter on his right front. Art Sherman speculated that it happened when he left the gate.
"I thought he was gaining ground but he didn't have it in him," an upset Coburn said on national television after the race. "You know what? This is his third very big race. These other horses, they always set him out. They set him out and try to upset the applecart.
"I'll never see, and I'm 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this. It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby you can't run in the other two races.
"It's all or nothing. It's all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people that believe in them. This is a coward's way out, in my opinion. This is a coward's way out."
Tonalist, who broke from the outside 11 post, came into the Belmont off an impressive four-length victory over the track in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) May 10 in just his fourth career start. The Belmont winner is trained by Christophe Clement.
The 17-hands-tall colt was fourth behind Belmont runner Matterhorn in his debut Nov. 16, 2013, at Aqueduct Racetrack, then broke his maiden by four lengths Jan. 18 going nine furlongs at Gulfstream Park. He ran second to eventual Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Constitution in an entry-level allowance race Feb. 22.
The $800,000 first prize in the Belmont boosts his earnings to $957,000.
The complete order of finish was Tonalist, Commissioner, Medal Count, California Chrome (dead-heat), Wicked Strong (dead-heat), Samraat, General a Rod, Matterhorn, Commanding Curve, Matuszak, and Ride On Curlin.
Trainer Billy Gowan said Ride On Curlin, second in the Preakness, bled in the race.
Evans is the son of Thomas Mellon Evans, whose Pleasant Colony won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) in 1981 only to finish third in the Belmont. Evans' Belmont winner is out of a Pleasant Colony mare.
"This morning I went to my father's grave and thanked him for putting me in this position," Evans said. "I've been where Steve Coburn has been, and it's not fun. I remember it was real quiet after we lost in 1981."
California Chrome, a California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit out of the Not For Love mare Love the Chase, was bred and is owned by Steve Coburn and Perry Martin. He came to New York riding a six-race win streak dating back to the King Glorious Stakes for state-breds Dec. 22, 2013, at Betfair Hollywood Park. He was based in New York for several weeks after winning the Preakness by 1 1/2 lengths over Ride On Curlin. On May 31 he worked a half-mile in :47 3/5.
Tonalist worked five furlongs the same day, getting five furlongs in 1:00 1/5.
"It's a great win; it's great for the team, for the staff, for the owner, Mr. Evans, who believed in us," Clement said after the race. "I'm thrilled."
Trainer Todd Pletcher won last year's Belmont with Palace Malice but came up just short in the Belmont with Commissioner.
"He ran super," Pletcher said. "I didn't anticipate that we would be on the lead, but we weren't going to take away anything they gave us. He was almost good enough today."
Medal Count, eighth in the Kentucky Derby, "ran very well," trainer Dale Romans said. "I thought he would be closer. It was a perfect trip. I think if we could have gotten free a little earlier because he's more of a grinder than a real turn-of-foot horse, I would have been real happy with him.
"It's unbelievable the way this New York crowd came out here and supported our sport, and I want them to know how much we truly appreciate it. It's about being around greatness, and California Chrome is greatness. He couldn't get it done today like the last 12 that tried, but he's greatness."
Tonalist was bred by Rene and Lauren Woolcott, whose 240-acre Woodslane Farm near The Plains, Va. Originally into steeplechasing, they got involved with Thoroughbreds in 2006 and they purchased Settling Mist at the 2007 Keeneland November sale through agent Patrick Lawley-Wakelin.
After breeding to several stallions with slants toward stamina they wanted to "inject a little speed into her," according to Lauren Wollcott. Unable to get to Speightstown in 2010, they were able to get to Tapit.
They offered the colt for sale at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale in 2011 through the consignment Sweezey and Partners, agent, where he RNA'd. Evans purchased him later back at the barn.
Triple Crown Near Misses Since Affirmed won in 1978
2014: California Chrome (4th, Tonalist)
2012: I'll Have Another (did not start)
2008: Big Brown (did not finish; Da' Tara)
2004: Smarty Jones (2nd, Birdstone)
2003: Funny Cide (3rd, Empire Maker)
2002: War Emblem (8th, Sarava)
1999: Charismatic (3rd, Lemon Drop Kid)
1998: Real Quiet (2nd; Victory Gallop)
1997: Silver Charm (2nd, Touch Gold)
1989: Sunday Silence (2nd, Easy Goer)
1987: Alysheba (4th, Bet Twice)
1981: Pleasant Colony (3rd, Summing)
1979: Spectacular Bid (3rd; Coastal)