Catching Up With Tonalist

Tonalist at Lane’s End. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

When Tonalist hit the track in 2013, he had a lot to live up to. His family was one of the most active in the sport at the time with four members of his family winning graded stakes in the previous five years, headlined by his dam’s (mother’s) half-sister producing 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.

Tonalist debuted in mid-November that year and finished fourth at Aqueduct. Shipping down to Florida with trainer Christophe Clement for the winter, Tonalist made a statement at Gulfstream Park in January when winning by four lengths with Joe Bravo aboard.

Thrown in against a tougher field that included future Grade 1 winners Constitution and Wicked Strong, Tonalist tracked Constitution for most of the race but had to settle for second when Constitution drew off to a 3 ¼-length victory.

It looked like Tonalist was about to jump on the Kentucky Derby trail in his next start with the connections planning to run in the Wood Memorial. But proving that even the best laid plans with horses can change quickly, Tonalist was taken off the Kentucky Derby trail when a lung infection that caused him to skip the Wood Memorial and any chance that he had of making a run for the roses.

The week after California Chrome took the Kentucky Derby Tonalist ran in the Peter Pan, Belmont Park’s prep race for the Belmont Stakes. Only letting another horse lead for one call of the race, he took control right after the first quarter-mile and spent the rest of the 1 1/8-mile race pulling away from the field. It was an easy four-length victory over Commissioner for the colt, who had Joel Rosario aboard for the first time since his debut the previous November.

Even though he won the Peter Pan by four lengths, Tonalist went off as only the fifth choice in the 11-horse Belmont Stakes. In a tightly bunched front pack, Tonalist was never farther than 1 ½ lengths behind the leader with Rosario keeping him to the outside of the pack so he stayed out of trouble.

Running next to California Chrome, who was going for the Triple Crown, Tonalist pushed ahead of him as they left the backstretch. But the respite from the Triple Crown hopeful didn’t last long as California Chrome soon joined him in the turn with the pair and two others all vying for the lead down the Belmont’s long stretch. Tonalist inched ahead with less than a furlong left and only had to worry about Commissioner in the shadow of the wire, beating his Peter Pan rival by a head with Medal Count in third and Wicked Strong and California Chrome dead heating for fourth less than two lengths behind Tonalist.


Like most Belmont Stakes winners in recent years, Tonalist took a small break from the races until late summer. Shipping to Saratoga, Tonalist made his first post-Belmont Stakes start in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy where he matched up with Wicked Strong again. For the first time in their three match-ups, Wicked Strong was able to get the upper hand, running right in front of Tonalist as Legend set the pace before winning by 2 ¼ lengths. A month later, they lined up in the Travers together and Wicked Strong again finished about two lengths ahead of Tonalist but both of them were beaten by V.E. Day, who just nosed out Wicked Strong.

While all three of them again matched up in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, it wasn’t a fair fight with Wicked Strong losing his jockey as they entered the far turn and V.E. Day never really firing. Tonalist, on the other hand, seemed to be back to his best when running without his customary blinkers, closing from second-last 12 ½ lengths behind the leading Big Cazanova.

At the top of the stretch, it looked like Tonalist may have to settle for another placing as he searched for a hole to go through with the leaders creating a wall in front of him. But with Rosario directing him outside of two horses on the rail, he found a hole between Zivo and Long River with less than a furlong left and switched into another gear. He left the rest of the pack behind, winning by 1 ¾ lengths over Zivo with Long River a farther two lengths back in third.

"I probably should have removed the blinkers before the Travers,” said trainer Christophe Clement after the race. “He, obviously, was a bit too aggressive in the Travers. Even so, he didn't quit. I love the way that, even when he got beat in the Travers he went on to the wire."


With the victory, Tonalist became only the fourth horse to win both the Belmont Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year. His win also allowed him a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park, his first start outside of Florida or New York.

Tonalist again dropped back, this time relaxing nearly 16 lengths behind the leading Bayern at one point. While he made up five lengths in the last furlong, it wasn’t enough to get the win with the colt finishing off the board in fifth for the first time since his debut nearly a year earlier.

Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing
Returning the following May for his 4-year-old debut, Tonalist showed he would be a force to be reckoned with when he won the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes as a prep race for the Metropolitan Handicap.

Running on the undercard of the 2015 Belmont Stakes in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap, Tonalist faced nine other older horses. Each runner had at least one stakes win on his resume with nine of those horses winning a Grade 1 or Grade 2. Private Zone and Bayern fought it out on the front end, running through fast fractions with the rest of the field lengths behind them. Tonalist sat at the back of the main pack with three other closers behind him and started his run at the top of the stretch as the others began to fade. But he was no match for the run by Honor Code, who blew past Tonalist and the rest of the field to win by 3 ¾ lengths with Tonalist in second.

Tonalist put in two more credible performances before his next victory, finishing second in a Grade 2 by a head and third in the Grade 1 Whitney before returning to defend his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Wicked Strong went straight to the lead in the race while Tonalist settled near the rear, 7 ½ lengths behind at the first call as Constitution and Wicked Strong battled up front. But Tonalist made a strong move before they had gone half a mile and put another horse behind him as he joined a tighter pack up front.

Running alongside Effinex in the turn, Tonalist had a clear track in front of him with the leading Wicked Strong a few paths wide and he took the lead as they straightened up for home. From there, the only question that needed answered was how far Tonalist would win by. The answer was 4 ¾ lengths when Tonalist stopped the clock in a time of 2:02.16 for the mile and a quarter on a sloppy track.


Tonalist became the fourth horse to win back-to-back Jockey Club Gold Cup races since 1990, following in the footsteps of horses such as Skip Away and Curlin. Like the previous year, Tonalist headed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this time shipping to Kentucky for the race.

Two Belmont Stakes winners were facing up in the race with Tonalist taking on American Pharoah. Tonalist was closer to the pace in the race, never worse than fourth throughout. But he never had a chance against American Pharoah, who easily led wire-to-wire for a 6 ½ length victory. Just like the previous year, Tonalist finished fifth in the Classic.

Tonalist wasn’t done after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, however, and returned to New York to continue training.

Tonalist lined up in the Cigar Mile at the end of November and went off as the second choice behind Private Zone. Private Zone took off out of the gate and set the pace while Tonalist settled near the back of the pack with just Full of Mine behind him. When it was time to go, John Velazquez started urging Tonalist on but got no response. The situation looked desperate at the top of the stretch with Tonalist still fifth with less than a furlong to go, three lengths behind the leader.

Tonalist finally switched into gear nearing the wire and within a few strides was even with the three horses vying for the lead. It was a close finish with Tonalist just inching out stablemate Red Vine by a neck at the line. Tonalist became the first Belmont winner to win the Cigar Mile since the race was created in 1988.


"I'm always a little bit worried when I run him," Clement, told The Blood-Horse. "The race was run in a funny way; they went so slow early on, which I didn't think was great for us. But that's what good horses do—they win and they overcome things."

A few weeks later Tonalist was retired to Lane’s End with a record of seven wins and six on-the-board finishes in 16 starts for $3,647,000 in earnings.

Soon after the retirement was announced, Christophe Clement’s Facebook page posted this tribute to the Belmont winner.

“All we can say is thank you for always giving it your all. It's been an incredible journey. You won us our first Classic win in the Belmont Stakes against California Chrome, and became crowned King of New York! You ran against the best horses in your division as both a 3 year old and a 4 year old. You were always sound and never failed to make us proud. On behalf of the entire Clement Tribe, we just want to say thank you for such an amazing ride. We'll be cheering for you at Lane’s End and can't wait to see all you will accomplish as a stallion. We'll make sure to visit!”

The first U.S. classic winner by leading sire Tapit, Tonalist stood for $30,000 in 2016 and is nearing the end of his first breeding season.  

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