Robert S. Evans' Tonalist was making just his fifth lifetime start in Saturday's 146th edition of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes but that didn't stop the Tapit colt from running down Commissioner to post a head win in the "Test of the Champion."
While most eyes were on Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero California Chrome, jockey Joel Rosario guided the Christophe Clement-trained Tonalist through 1 1/2 miles on Belmont Park's fast dirt in 2:28 2/5 to hand Commissioner a second straight defeat after the duo finished one-two in the Grade 2 Peter Pan on May 10.
"It's a great win, it's great for the team, for the staff, for the owner, Mr. Evans, who believed in us. I'm absolutely thrilled. It's wonderful," Clement said. "He trained great, he looked great before the race. I'm absolutely delighted that he won.
"I wasn't sure he won," the horseman added. "We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won. It was great."
Commissioner led the way through splits of :24, :48 2/5, 1:12 4/5 and 1:37 while flanked by General a Rod. Tonalist moved up from his far outside post to be third by the time the field hit the backstretch. Victor Espinoza had California Chrome tucked in saving ground just to the outside of the rail-skimming Medal Count until nearing the turn, when he dropped back and angled his chestnut mount off the inside.
California Chrome circled widest of all as Commissioner, General a Rod and Tonalist lined up across the track rounding the turn. The popular colt put in his best effort, but couldn't keep pace as Tonalist kept cutting into Commissioner's margin until finally getting his head in front on the wire.
"Yes (it's bittersweet). I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him," Rosario admitted. "This is very important to me like always. This is the Belmont, so this is great.
"This horse, he did very good today. (Tonalist is) just kind of a big horse, and he has one long stride, and he just grind it, and keeps on going and going, keeps on coming, and he got the job done today."
Tonalist was sent off the 9-1 fifth choice in the 11-horse field and returned $20.40 for the win. Commissioner suffered a tough beat in second, while Medal Count filled the third spot another length back.
"He ran super," trainer Todd Pletcher praised Commissioner. "I didn't anticipate that we would be on the lead, but we weren't going to take away anything they gave us. He was almost good enough today."
"It's unbelievable the way this New York crowd came out here and supported our sport, and I want them to know how much we truly appreciate it," said Dale Romans, who saddled Medal Count to his Belmont third. "It's about being around greatness, and California Chrome is greatness. He couldn't get it done today like the last twelve that tried, but he's greatness, and it proves people here still appreciate the greatness of this game. It's always an honor to be a part of a great event like this.
"(Medal Count) ran very well," Romans added. "I thought he would be closer. It was a perfect trip. I think if we could have gotten free a little earlier because he's more of a grinder than a real turn of foot (horse), I would have been real happy with him. I'm happy anyway. It's a great day for racing in America."
California Chrome bobbled at the start and reportedly grabbed a quarter. The blazed-faced chestnut dead-heated for fourth with Wicked Strong on the Belmont line.
"A little tired. I thought he was...turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat down the lane," a dejected Espinoza stated. "(Taking dirt didn't both him) at all. I was nice and comfortable in there, and I had a chance to move out, and when I moved out he just don't have that today.
"I think it was tough for him. He ran back-to-back races in different tracks -- and all those fresh horses. But he feels good."
"When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn't respond. He was wore out, I think," said Alan Sherman, son and assistant to California Chrome's trainer, Art Sherman. "Victor seemed to think he handled the surface fine, and he seemed to come back fine. We'll know more when we get back to the barn."
Samraat, General a Rod, Matterhorn and Commanding Curve completed the order under the wire. Matuszak and Ride On Curlin, who reportedly bled, were both eased.
Tonalist opened his career last November at Aqueduct, running fourth in a one-mile maiden special weight on the main track. He returned to action two months later for his three-year-old bow in a maiden contest at Gulfstream Park, triumphing that day by four lengths while stretching out to nine furlongs.
The bay faced winners for the first time on February 22 at Gulfstream, including impressive maiden debut scorer and eventual Florida Derby victor Constitution. Tonalist gave it his best but just could not run down that rival while going 1 1/16 miles.
Next up for the colt was the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, but Tonalist came down with a lung infection which forced him to miss that final shot at earning any points for making the Kentucky Derby field.
Tonalist's connections gave their colt plenty of time to recover and opted to give him a start at Belmont instead of pointing for the Preakness. The Kentucky-bred ended up running in the Peter Pan and schooled his rivals in that nine-furlong, sloppy affair when leading all the way home to score by four lengths.
Next up was the Belmont, and Tonalist lived up to expectations with his hard-fought score. In the process, he improved his scorecard to read 5-3-1-0 and boosted his earnings to $957,000.
Tonalist is out of the winning Pleasant Colony mare Settling Mist, making his second dam the stakes-winning Toll Fee. That one's descendants include Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, multiple Grade 1 queen Riskaverse, and Grade 3 scorers Cozzy Corner and Bouquet Booth.
Tonalist's third dam is Broodmare of the Year Toll Booth, a half-sister to leading sire Raja Baba whose offspring include champion sprinter Plugged Nickle, Grade 1 winner Christiecat and Grade 3 heroine Key to the Bridge.
The Belmont Stakes winner was bred in Kentucky by Woodslane Farm and RNAed for $195,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Selected Yearlings sale.