Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Tonalist looks to the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) July 26 as a hopeful launching pad for the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and perhaps a shot at the 3-year-old title. But familiar characters along with a few new rivals will attempt to foil his effort at Saratoga Race Course.
Tonalist, a 3-year-old son of Tapit who took the June 7 Belmont for Robert S. Evans and trainer Christophe Clement, has been training forwardly at Saratoga since his win in the 1 1/2-mile classic. He shares highweight assignment of 123 pounds with Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong, the Twinspires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner who last dead-heated for fourth in the Belmont with dual classic winner California Chrome.
Ten of the past 16 Travers winners, including four of the past five, have come out of the Jim Dandy. For Tonalist, whose career was put on hold in South Florida when he suffered a lung infection last winter, winning those races could result in consideration for Eclipse Award honors at the end of the year. Tonalist also won the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) before taking the Belmont.
"It's great when your patience pays off, and that's a credit to his owner who gave me the freedom to do that," said Clement. "To be competing on this level is very exciting for me."
Tonalist, favored at 8-5 on the morning line, is 2-for-2 at the nine-furlong distance, having broken his maiden at Gulfstream Park Jan. 18 before eventually airing by four lengths on a sloppy, sealed track in the Peter Pan.
Clement said Tonalist has continued to progress since the Belmont, in which he stalked the early pace and gained steadily down the stretch to catch Commissioner by a head at the wire.
"I think he's fit, but I think he can move up from the race, too," he said. "He had a break after the Belmont and he put on quite a bit of weight. He's been very playful and he thinks life is great. Unfortunately for him over the last three weeks he's been back to work, but he still thinks that life is great. He's a very playful kind of a horse, and that's a great thing. He's taking his work very well."
Joel Rosario, who rode Tonalist in both the Peter Pan and the Belmont, will be in the irons as they break from the 4 hole, while Wicked Strong breaks from the outside under Rajiv Maragh in the field of seven. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens said Wicked Strong will race in blinkers; the Hard Spun colt tried them for his pre-race tuneup July 19 over the Saratoga main track under exercise rider Kevin Pahl.
Wicked Strong made a belated run from mid-pack in the Belmont, leaving Jerkens displeased with his effort.
"I was a little disappointed. He ran okay, but I didn't think he ran as good as we thought he would," the trainer said. "He was a little lackluster. He spit the bit out down the backside for some reason. I thought he'd be sitting there with a nice pull, but for some reason he spit the bit and (Maragh) had to get after him. He finished okay. All in all, I guess he finished slightly better than the rest of them did."
Another Triple Crown veteran entered in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy is West Point Thoroughbreds' Commanding Curve, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Dallas Stewart sent the Master Command ridgling to finish ninth of 11 in the Belmont last time out.
Commanding Curve is cross-entered in the July 25 Curlin Stakes, where he drew the rail, but will start in the Jim Dandy, where he got post 6 under jockey Shaun Bridgmohan with a 117-pound impost.
Kid Cruz flirted with the classics but ultimately wound up bypassing the Belmont to run in the July 5 Dwyer Stakes (gr. III), a 1 1/16-mile contest he won with a strong rally by three-quarters of a length. Also winner of the June 7 Easy Goer at Belmont and of the Federico Tesio and Private Terms Stakes in Maryland, the Lemon Drop Kid ridgling gets Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons from the 5 hole and is closest in the weights to the big two with an assignment of 119. He was claimed by his current connections and trainer Linda Rice for $50,000 last fall.
"I obviously took a little different route," Rice said. "The Easy Goer really turned him around. He needed that race, and it was a pretty attractive spot. It helped him and got him back in the game, and he's really turned the corner since."
Cousin Stephen, a Proud Citizen colt who races for Chad Brown, won a June 16 allowance at Parx Racing going a mile on the dirt last out. Legend, a son of Tiznow trained by H. James Bond, was second in the Easy Goer last time out by 3 3/4 lengths. Ulanbator, by Offlee Wild from the barn of Ian Wilkes, was third in the Dwyer and second in the June 14 Matt Winn Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs.