Sean Morris is a Media Specialist at The New York Racing Association, Inc. and ardent handicapper. Like most horseplayers, his skill is surpassed only by his confidence.
You can find Sean on twitter at: @horseplayer_
Regardless of the outcome of this Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, it’s hard not to think Peter Pan winner Tonalist is a legitimate threat to win the Belmont Stakes. That may seem like a bold proclamation to make with a Triple Crown potentially on the line, but that's how impressive the son of Tapit was this past Saturday.
After a slight stumble at the start left Tonalist near the back of the pack, he cruised up to the pacesetting Fabulous Kid and seized command of the early lead shortly after an opening quarter-mile in 23.79 seconds. (It’s important to point out that he didn’t rush up to the front. He wasn’t rank, or headstrong, or urged by jockey Joel Rosario; he did it well within himself.)
Keeping up with the momentum of his early move, he ran his second quarter-mile in just a tick over 23 seconds, leading the field through a half in 46.83. This seems like a fast split on its face – the track was sloppy and not playing particularly fast – but again, he was totally in control and just galloping along.
After six furlongs in 1:10.89, and despite slowing down the tempo, it was reasonable to wonder if the early fractions and move might take its toll on the young colt, who had been off for nearly 3 months after dealing with a lung infection. Tonalist erased any doubt about his class and fitness when the field turned for home.
At the head of the stretch, with Commisioner on his inside and Irish You Well on his outside both looking menacing, Tonalist promptly switched leads and rebroke, leaving the two would-be challengers in his muddy wake. On the wire, he was four lengths clear of Commissioner, while it was another 2 1/4 lengths back to Irish You Well in third. The 3-year-old colt stopped the clock in 1:48.30 for the mile and an eighth and earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for the performance.
What immediately came to mind following the race was Freedom Child's Peter Pan victory a year earlier. Both wins were dominant, front-running performances over a sloppy racetrack, and produced strikingly similar fractions. Those who want to use Freedom Child's Belmont flop as evidence against Tonalist may want to reconsider.
In the 2013 edition of the Belmont, Freedom Child had the misfortune of chasing a suicidal pace (an almost identical pace to the one he set in the 2013 Peter Pan). He had won only two races prior to the Test of the Champion and had yet to be rated successfully, so it wasn't entirely unsurprising to see him ridden so aggressively, but it definitely compromised his chances. Tonalist, on the other hand, has proven to be very tractable in his nascent career. He rallied from seventh place to break his maiden at Gulfstream Park, and a month later finished second to Florida Derby winner Constitution after sitting just off the early pace. And while their Peter Pan's are superficially similar, Tonalist appeared to be the more composed of the two, which bodes well for him not mirroring Freedom Child's Belmont.
There's also been some chatter recently that Tonalist's trainer, Christophe Clement, is out of his element with a dirt horse. While it's an exquisitely ignorant claim worthy of a blog post unto itself, I'll try to keep it to a paragraph.
First off, Clement excels in just about every conceivable category. He puts his horses where they belong and can thrive, and just happens to have a lot of turf horses (probably because of his erroneous reputation). The trouble with this is that it's a cycle doomed to repeat itself. If owners associate Clement with being a turf trainer, they're going to send him horses bred for turf. If he does well with those horses, he'll be recognized for his work on the turf, and it will perpetuate the idea that he's a turf trainer, causing owners to send him more turf horses. What's a trainer to do but embrace his role and try to win races? Hopefully, Tonalist will help illuminate the fact that Clement is an all-around great horseman, not a specialist.
While Tonalist is the most exciting Belmont prospect to exit the Peter Pan, I'd be remiss not to mention Commissioner as a possible contender, as well. Races at a mile and a half have a habit of narrowing any perceived gaps in ability, especially when they're for 3-year-olds, and Commissioner has the pedigree to excel at the distance, as his sire and damsire are both Belmont winners. The son of A.P. Indy has some blemishes on his record (a pair of sixth-place finishes in the Arkansas Derby and Fountain of Youth), but has proven he's a stayer – hitting the board in four of five 1 1/8-mile races – and has fared particularly well over more tiring ground (the Peter Pan and his Gulfstream Park allowance win). I could easily see him outrunning his odds if he's overlooked in the betting.