Once again, racing fans, longing for that happy ending to their fairy tale, followed Alice down the rabbit hole in search of Wonderland, only to find nothing more than the harsh reality that is Thoroughbred racing.
This year, we hoped to emerge from the rabbit hole seeing everyone’s hero, California Chrome, wearing that elusive Triple Crown, but just as it’s been the past 36 years, all we saw was Alice once again saying, “It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.”
But, you know what? The next time we see Alice chasing that White Rabbit down the hole, we’re going to follow her anyway, just for that slight chance that this time the fairy tale ending awaits. It is human nature and the nature of the Sport of Kings, which was built on dreams hundreds of years ago and will continue to be built on dreams for as long as the sport exists.
So, again, we are jolted back to reality and must chronicle the defeat of California Chrome, the victory of Tonalist, and tell of another fairy tale unfinished, just as we have 11 times since 1978; 12 if you count I'll Have Another.
It is rare that mainstream America embraces a horse the way it has California Chrome. By the time the colt arrived at Belmont Park following his victories in the grade I Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes, it seemed as if everyone wanted a piece of him. He became one of the hottest marketing commodities in the country and was grabbed by Skechers shoes. He even had the entire country talking about nasal strips, which the colt wears in his races. When a possum ran in front of him during one of his gallops, it had the public looking up the critter on Google and graphic artists coming up with creative images of the two animals. There were groups formed, such as “The Chromies,” who wrapped themselves in aluminum foil, wore purple Band-Aids on their noses and donkey logos on their hats, signifying owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin’s Dumb Ass Stable.
California Chrome was put in trainer Jimmy Toner’s barn, alongside his new buddy Ride On Curlin. Preparation for his arrival was as thorough and intense as it would be in Washington D.C. for visiting royalty.
“I had Ride On Curlin here for the Champagne (gr. I) last year and (his trainer) Billy Gowan called after the Preakness and said they want to put both horses in here,” Toner said.
Exercise rider Robby Anderson, who used to freelance for California Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman and now works for Toner, was watching TV several hours before the colt’s arrival and couldn’t believe there were helicopters following the van. It was also learned that the van would be receiving a police escort from the Throgs Neck Bridge to the track.
New York Racing Association’s head security officer Juan Dominguez would be California Chrome’s shadow as soon as the colt arrived.
“I hope this horse wins by 10,” he said. “We need a punch in the arm. We need something.”
Each morning at Belmont, California Chrome was out on the track by 6 o’clock, usually followed by hordes of photographers. But there was one horse who beat him to the track every day, and that was the lightly raced Tonalist, who was among trainer Christophe Clement’s first set that came out at 5:45. The son of Tapit – Settling Mist, by Pleasant Colony would stand quietly for several minutes eyeing the activity and then go about his business, which meant strong, smooth gallops over a track he obviously loved, as indicated by his impressive four-length victory in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) May 10, in which he defeated the promising, but inconsistent Commissioner.
Clement would bring his horses through the paddock and would give his exercise riders their final instructions as they lined up along the rail. He then would go to the back of apron and watch each horse’s every move through his binoculars. Although Clement trained all his horses with the same care and attentiveness, there was no doubt the powerful bay colt with the distinctive and easily recognizable blaze was something special, which he has been since he was a baby.
Tonalist’s story actually begins when Patrick Lawley-Wakelin, racing manager and advisor for Evans, fell in love with Settling Mist, who he had seen at the farm. Being linked to Pleasant Colony, who won the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness for Evans’s father, Thomas Mellon Evans, he naturally took an interest in any mare by Pleasant Colony.
“When I went to see the mare, I loved her,” he said. “She was in foal to Seeking the Gold and carrying a Seeking the Gold filly. Because everyone was looking for fillies at the time, she brought a fair amount of money ($800,000). I had been introduced to Rene and Loren Woolcott, who had built this gorgeous farm called Woodslane Farm in Virginia, and I bought the mare for them.”
Settling Mist eventually was bred to Tapit and got Tonalist.
“When we bought Settling Mist, I had done a lot of business with Wayne and Cathy Sweezey, who owned Timber Town, and asked them if they would board the mare for the Woolcotts, who didn’t have the facility to foal their mares down in Virginia,” said Lawley-Wakelin.
The Sweezeys brought the Tapit colt to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, and also were selling yearlings for Shel Evans. But the sale was a big disappointment.
“The first night, we bought two of Shel’s horses back,” Wayne Sweezey recalled. “We had a terrible sale. And then we bought Tonalist back. That May, we thought Tonalist could have been one of the best horses we’ve ever raised. He was just a beautiful, lovely colt; big and scopey. After he had returned to Woodslane Farm, they found a small flake in either his hock or ankle and Dr. (Larry) Bramlage cleaned it up. As the spring progressed, he got prettier and prettier and was so elegant and striking looking. He was the perfect horse for Saratoga. There was nothing about him you could knock. He had the size, the conformation, and the pedigree. I was so excited for the Woolcotts, because we really wanted to do well for them. I was pumped.”
The colt had the perfect disposition. He’d go out for his walk and then come back and take a nap. He’d get up, eat his breakfast or lunch and take another nap. Cathy would come home at night and tell Wayne, “This horse is just remarkable. He is so laid back in the barn and so with it.”
But between May and August, the colt went through a dramatic growth spurt. His hips shot up and he became a bit roach-backed. But he still was the coolest colt on the farm. The question now was whether or not buyers would be attracted to him.
“So he went up to Saratoga, but had turned into this glumph,” Sweezey said. “The Woolcotts were beside themselves. We were beside ourselves, because here we had this beautiful horse in May and now he’s a big ‘ol hunk of a horse and we had to buy him back for $195,000. Shel was hanging out at the barn and he was having a bad sale and we’re all lamenting. Cathy and I were mortified he didn’t sell, because we loved the colt and recognized that he had turned into this big gangly horse. Shel looks at him and asks, ‘Who’s that?’ We tell him, it’s a Tapit colt, out of a Pleasant Colony mare. Of course, he had an association with Pleasant Colony through his father. When he looked at him, the colt was lying in his stall, with his head halfway out the stall door, and he’s sound asleep. Shel starts telling us about how he went with his father to the barn the morning of the Kentucky Derby and there’s press everywhere and it’s noisy, and there is Pleasant Colony sound asleep in his stall. And here it’s noisy outside and this colt is doing the exact same thing.”
Cathy began telling him how much she loved the colt and how special he was, and Evans asked how much the Woolcotts wanted for him. He was not concerned at all about the growth spurt, saying, “Well, that’s the way a Pleasant Colony is supposed to look right now.”
Evans added, “Cathy Sweezey urged me, ten times probably, to look at the horse and dragged me back and I said I didn't get any money for the other horses, I don't have any money to spend on him. She said you've got to buy this horse. He didn't sell so they discounted him substantially and I said finally, ‘All right, I'll buy him.’ She made me do it.”
Tonalist was sent to Bill Harrigan at Miacomet Farm, who gave him his early training at Payson Park.
“He was a big horse, so we took our time with him,” Harrigan said. “He was very kind and laid back and did everything pretty easily when we started breezing him. He gobbled up ground with that huge stride. We were very high on him, and when Mr. Evans said Chris was going to train him, I told Chris, ‘He’s always been sound for a big horse and never had a hitch. He’s very laid back and sleeps a lot.’”
Before he began training, he was broken at Miacomet by Mark McEntee, who, at age 18, came to America with the 23-year-old Clement after they worked together for Luca Cumani in England. McEntee became Clement’s assistant when they started out with only four horses in 1991.
“Tonalist looked exceptional coming off the van,” McEntee said. “It was very obvious right away he had talent; just the length of his stride and his beautiful action. Mr. Evans picked the perfect trainer for this horse.”
But when he arrived at Clement’s barn it took him a while to get his act together.
“He trained OK, like a nice horse,” Clement said, while sitting on his favorite bench on the apron one morning about two weeks before the Belmont. “First time out, he finished fourth, but it was a good fourth on a track that was speed favoring. It took him a bit longer to get going at Payson Park, so I waited until he started to trainer better. He broke his maiden impressively and trained well, but was spotted extremely poorly by his trainer, who ran him in the worst allowance race of the year, in that it was a very speed-favoring track, and he did well to finish second to Constitution (who would go on to win the grade I Besilu Florida Derby).
“We were aiming for the (Twinspires.com)) Wood Memorial (gr. I) and he worked OK in his two works, but came back from his second work with mucus in his lungs; a three on a scale of one to five, and was a little sore on both feet. We backed off and gave him some time and he started training OK. Then he won the Peter Pan, but there was a little question mark with his feet after the race. We gave him an easy week and then after an easy work I started to go full steam ahead with him in order to get to the Belmont Stakes in top condition.”
Clement made it a point to compliment Evans.
“He is a great guy,” he said. “Every time he talks to you the horse always comes first, which is so refreshing. When I called him and told him it was a mistake to go for the Wood, he said, ‘Well, I guess we won’t make the Derby this year.’ I said, ‘I guess not,” and he answered, ‘Well, just do whatever is best for the horse.’”
With Tonalist winning the Peter Pan on May 10 and Ride On Curlin finishing a powerful second to California Chrome in the Preakness Stakes, it left jockey Joel Rosario, who rode both colts, and his agent Ron Anderson with a difficult decision on who to ride in the Belmont.
Immediately after the Preakness, Clement sent a text to Anderson, asking “Am I in trouble?” And Anderson replied, “No.”
“He either likes him or he just rides far more horses for our stable than for Billy Gowan,” Clement said.
Evans obviously wanted to win the Belmont, but as a sportsman and lover of the game, he hated the thought of being a spoiler.
“He told everyone, ‘Let’s all stay below the radar on this until we see what the horse does,” Sweezey said several weeks before the Belmont. “Of course, he wants to win, but he doesn’t want to deal with possibly being a spoiler until after the fact. He just wanted to keep a low profile.”
As the Belmont grew closer, Clement briefly thought about taking the blinkers off Tonalist, but decided not to make any changes.
“He still thinks life is a big game,” he said. “When we left New York last fall I was expecting the race to move him up mentally and it didn’t. I was very disappointed, so I put the blinkers on him. I probably should take them off, but it’s so difficult when the horse is running well. It’s very difficult to change something that’s working. I’ve watched the last 10 Belmonts and it’s amazing that going a mile and a half, you still have to be on or near the pace.”
Confidence was growing in the Clement barn. Two weeks before the race, exercise rider Jerry Fogarty, who used to gallop Gio Ponti, stated with total conviction in this thick Irish accent, “He won’t get beat in the Belmont.”
Meanwhile, California Chrome was going about his business and posing for photographers every morning. He would come out just as the sun was appearing over the horizon and would illuminate his golden coat, giving it a radiant splendor. His one and only work between the Preakness and Belmont impressed everyone who saw it, as the colt galloped out strongly and just kept going until he was pulled up after a mile.
Art Sherman, who has a string of horses at Los Alamitos Racetrack, didn’t show up until several days before the Belmont, leaving his son and assistant Alan to handle the barrage of media questions each day. When Art arrived, he loved what he saw.
“Actually, I think he looks better now than he did after the Preakness,” he said. “I can’t believe how much weight he’s put on. He’s an amazing horse. I know there are a lot of fresh horses taking a shot at him and he’ll have a target on his back, but this horse in the real McCoy. This whole experience has been wild and woolly. I don’t think he has to win the Triple Crown to be a hero. He’ll always be a hero to me. If he can get the Belmont, that’ll be the hat trick.”
The draw did not go particularly well for Tonalist, who drew post 11 on the far outside, putting him in danger of getting hung wide on that sweeping first turn.
Clement is a veteran who has seen it all and he wasn’t going to let post position bother him.
“I’ll let Rosario worry about it,” he said. “I have 70 horses to train and I’m not going to lose sleep over post positions.”
Belmont day, with its extraordinary card of major stakes worth some $8 million, dawned without a cloud in the sky. With the track open for training from 5 to 8 a.m., Tonalist, as usual, was the first one out at 5 o’clock. Cian McEntee, son of Mike McEntee and a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, who has been interning with Clement for only 2 1/2 weeks after working with the yearlings at Miacomet Farm, was handed the shank on Tonalist and allowed to lead him to the track. He was not aware, however, that the colt doesn’t like anyone pulling on his mouth, and when he gave a yank on the chain approaching the track, Tonalist reared straight up in the air and nearly clipped him on the head.
“I’m alive, and more important, he’s in one piece,” McEntee said. “He’s ready to go. That would have been a helluva thing for my first Belmont to get kicked in the head.”
Shortly after Tonalist left the track, California Chrome came out for a jog, as Art Sherman looked on with his morning cup of coffee.
“I got a good night’s sleep and went to bed early,” he said. “Today’s the big day. It’s been like a whirlwind and it finally caught up with me. It’s been pretty wild. What a responsibility. I’m so glad Alan’s got my back, which allowed me to get back home for a while.”
With a crowd of 102,199 in attendance, California Chrome was sent off as the 4-5 favorite, with Wicked Strong second choice at 5-1, followed by Ride On Curlin and Commanding Curve at 8-1 and Tonalist at 9-1.
Surprisingly, it was Commissioner, second in the Peter Pan, who was sent to the lead, followed by California Chrome and General a Rod from the outside. Tonalist, as feared, was caught about five-wide going into the first turn, as the entire field was tightly bunched, with about seven lengths separating first from last.
Around the first turn, General a Rod moved into second, as Victor Espinoza elected to sit back off the pace with California Chrome. Behind the first three were Medal Count, Wicked Strong, and Tonalist on the outside, as they went the opening quarter in :24.06.
Entering the backstretch, Tonalist eased his way into fourth, as the field remained bunched, with Samraat surprisingly last. After a half in :48.52, Commissioner still held a narrow lead over General a Rod, as the field remained pretty much the same. As Tonalist moved closer to the leaders, California Chrome, instead of staying on the inside, was taken four wide by Espinoza, with Medal Count and Wicked Strong still right there in the hunt.
Around the far turn, California Chrome moved up on the outside, but didn’t show that typical acceleration, pretty much hanging there with the top three. With three-quarters in 1:12.84, Commissioner still hung tough, but General a Rod looked to stick his head in front briefly. Turning into the stretch, California Chrome now had to play the role of closer, but despite a series of left-handed whips from Espinoza was unable to gain any ground. General a Rod began to back out of it, leaving Commissioner with a clear lead and Tonalist trying to chase him down. Medal Count was always right there, but unable to threaten the leaders. California Chrome drifted out slightly forcing Espinoza to switch to a right-handed whip.
It was now Commissioner, at 28-1, trying to hold off Tonalist, who was relentless. As they hit the wire, it was Tonalist by a head, with a game Commissioner second by a length over Medal Count. California Chrome and Wicked Strong hit the wire together, dead-heating for fourth, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. The time was 2:28.52.
It was discovered while unsaddling that California Chrome had grabbed his right front quarter, taking a fairly big chunk of skin off. Photographs revealed it actually was 40-1 shot Matterhorn who stepped on him coming out of the gate, making California Chrome’s effort much better than it first appeared. Another casualty of the race was Ride On Curlin, who was eased after displacing his palate and bleeding a little as well.
Elliott Walden, president/CEO and racing manager of WinStar Farm, took Commisioner’s defeat in stride, having been on the other end of the photo in the 1998 Belmont.
“It was a tough beat, but I was really pleased with his effort,” he said. “I felt at a mile and a half he was in his rhythm and they’d have a tough time getting by him. I’ve been there with Victory Gallop (who defeated Real Quiet in the Belmont by nose) and I’m thinking about that now. You win some you lose some. I’m looking forward to the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and the Travers (gr. I).
For the Shermans, it was the end of a long, hard, but magical journey.
“It’s been great. I have no complaints at all,” Alan said as he headed back to the barn. “He tried his heart out. That’s all you can ask. We’ll send him to the farm and get that quarter healed up. We’ll live to fight another day.”
Art added, “We’ve had such a good run with him. He won six races in a row and doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody. I thought he had a good shot at the quarter pole, but maybe that foot got to stinging him.”
Over at Clement’s barn, it was all revelry, as the entire crew gathered to have their photo taken with the blanket of carnations.
“Well, we both survived this morning,” McEntee said. “You can bet I’ll never touch his mouth again,”
Lee Vickers, who exercises Tonalist, said, “It’s just an absolute pleasure riding him every day. It’s a privilege to get on him. He’s just a beautiful horse to ride; good as gold. I thought the Belmont would be perfect for him, because he loves the track, he’s an exceptional galloper, and he stays forever. He lays down all the time and just chills. He’s just a classy, professional horse.”
Clement, who finally removed the stigma of being a grass trainer, refused to take credit for his superb training job, winning the Belmont with a colt with only four career starts.
“He did it all,” he said. “I didn’t do anything special. I trained him like any other horse. Unfortunately, the Virginia Derby (a former grass race) doesn’t exist anymore. That’s a joke. We’ll keep him on dirt for a while.”
So, perhaps, one day the new generation of racing fans will get that Triple Crown winner and have something to tell their grandchildren, just like Alice did when “she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago.”