Tonalist: Blinkers or No Blinkers?

So, is Tonalist better with or without blinkers?

Normally, it’s pretty obvious whether blinkers help a horse and if a horse needs them or not. But not in Tonalist’s case. You see, he is two different horses with and without blinkers, but the results are pretty much the same. He wins and loses with them and wins and loses without them.

But there is one major difference. With blinkers, he proved to be a tactical speed horse, whose m.o. was sitting right off the lead. That’s the way he won the Peter Pan (gr. II) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

But it’s also how he lost the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and Travers Stakes (gr. I), in which he ran well, finishing second and third, respectively, but showed little closing punch, getting beat over two lengths each time.

Trainer Christophe Clement decided to remove the blinkers for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), and a new Tonalist was born. At the start he immediately dropped to the back of the pack, some 10 lengths off the lead. This was by no means a strong rendition of the Gold Cup, and Tonalist, sent off as the lukewarm 3-1 favorite, overcame trouble to win going away by 1 3/4 lengths in 2:02.12.

OK, so blinkers removal a success; on to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Uh, not so fast. Once again, Tonalist dropped out of it, retreating to the back of the 14-horse field, 15 3/4 lengths off pacesetting Bayern. At the top of the stretch, he still was 11th, 13 lengths back, and had virtually no chance at all to win, and little chance to finish in the money. He did close well to be fifth, beaten five lengths.

Was this the new Tonalist? Had he been transformed from an effective pace stalker into Silky Sullivan? Once a horse who dictated his own strategy and was always in control of his fate, he had lost all his speed and was totally dependant on pace.

OK, so now we move to 2015. Tonalist makes his first start in the one-mile Westchester Stakes (gr. III), and lo and behold, the blinkers are back on. With his renewed tactical speed, he sits in fourth and draws off to a 3 3/4-length victory in a sharp 1:34 flat.

So, now it looked as if the blinkers were here to stay. The next stop was the Met Mile, which as usual, drew a deep, talented field of sprinters, milers, and middle-distance horses. Private Zone, arguably the classiest speed horse in the country, cut out a wicked pace (:44 4/5 and 1:08 3/5). Tonalist never possessed that kind of speed and had to be content racing in seventh, about six lengths off the lead. He closed well to eventually catch Private Zone, but could not match the awesome closing punch of Honor Code, who looked hopelessly beaten only to blow the field away to win by 3 3/4 lengths in a blazing 1:33 flat in one of the most brilliant performances seen in a long time.

Tonalist, whose best distances are farther than a mile, ran a big race to be second, and he still ran his mile in an estimated 1:33 4/5.

Tonalist’s next stop was the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap (gr. II). And guess what? No blinkers. Racing in fifth early in the six-horse field, he finished fast, but was out-closed by 6-1 shot Effinex, who beat him a head, while in receipt of six pounds.

Now it was on to the Whitney (gr. I), the race he had been pointing for. Clement kept the blinkers off, and once again, Tonalist dropped to the back of the pack, falling 18 1/4 lengths off the hot pace set by Liam’s Map. Back there with him was Honor Code, who was trying to prove he was as effective going two turns. Honor Code actually was in front of Tonalist at the five-sixteenths pole, as he cut to the inside.

In midstretch, Liam’s Map had pulled away, opening a five-length lead and looked to be home free. Honor Code relentlessly closed the gap, but appeared to have run out of room. Nearing the wire, Liam’s Map finally started to get a bit leg weary and Honor Code pounced on him to win by a neck, giving him seven pounds.

As for Tonalist, he also closed fast late, but had to settle for third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Liam’s Map. However, he did finish 4 1/4 lengths ahead of fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong.

So, here he is ready for another crack at the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Liam’s Map likely will train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (the Dirt Mile (gr. I) is another option), while Honor Code will use the one-mile Kelso (gr. II) on the same card as his prep for the Classic. That leaves Tonalist as the horse to beat. But, as we’ve learned, winning the Gold Cup has not been all that successful for horses coming back in the Classic.

The question now is the same as it was when we started. Is Tonalist better with or without blinkers? Is he better sitting just off the pace or coming from far back, where traffic normally becomes an issue?

If Liam’s Map, American Pharoah, and Beholder all make it to the Classic, it would seem to set it up better for the blinkerless Tonalist, assuming he gets a clean trip. But if you get a Classic like last year, when Bayern took them wire-to-wire, then you would want the blinkered Tonalist to be sitting just off the pace and in position to strike.

It is an intriguing dilemma. It would be ideal if Tonalist, without blinkers, could somehow stay within striking distance in the Gold Cup in an effort to teach him not to drop so far out of it. After all, unlike Honor Code, he is a not a natural late closer. We know he has excellent tactical speed and can carry it long distances.

So, when you’re watching the Gold Cup on Oct. 3, keep a close eye on Tonalist, and see if this race can somehow keep him sharp enough to come back in the Classic and be effective against what promises to be an extremely brilliant and talented field. He is the one horse we really can’t get a grasp of, because we don’t know how he wants to run, where he’ll be in the race, and whether he is a better horse with or without blinkers.

We do know one thing, much like 2002 BC Classic winner Volponi, he seems to run his best races in which there is an equipment change, whether it’s blinkers on or off. When they came off, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. When they went back on, he won the Westchester. When they came back off, he was beaten a head in the Suburban, going four-wide and giving six pounds to a very good horse.

So, no matter what he does in the Gold Cup without blinkers, he could be ready for a huge effort in the Classic with blinkers back on.

Just a thought.

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