Defending champion Tonalist was seemingly unfazed by the sloppy conditions that had enveloped Belmont Park this week, earning his ticket to the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic on October 31 with an emphatic, 4 ¾-length victory in the 97th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday.
Leaving from the outside post under Hall of Famer John Velazquez, Tonalist settled towards the back of the pack, several lengths behind Constitution, who led the field of six through six furlongs under early pressure from Wicked Strong.
Tonalist, trained by Christophe Clement for Robert S. Evans, gained ground on his rivals as Wicked Strong assumed control from a fading Constitution on the far turn. Velazquez steered the 4-year-old Tapit colt to the inside, easily sweeping past Wicked Strong to complete the 1 ¼ miles.
With only this spring’s Grade 3 Westchester in his 2015 win column, Tonalist, who registered a 1 ¾-length victory facing older horses for the first time in the 2014 edition of the Gold Cup, had fallen victim to a recent rash of near misses, with a pair of runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and the Grade 2 Suburban this summer at Belmont.
Tonalist finished third in his most recent start in the Grade 1 Whitney on August 8 at Saratoga Race Course, falling 1 ¾ lengths short of multiple graded stakes winner Honor Code.
“I think [in the Suburban] I let him do what he wanted to do instead of taking hold of him. and he got caught,” said Velazquez. “He was so much better today. Everything worked out perfect. He was so good and traveling so well throughout the race.”
Tonalist’s $600,000 share of the Gold Cup purse boosts his career earnings to $3,097,000 with an overall record of 14-6-4-2, including five wins and two seconds from seven starts at Belmont.
Describing the Breeders’ Cup Classic as the next “logical” spot, Clement said Tonalist is on schedule to make his second start in the year-end championships, where he finished fifth in the 2014 edition, adding that, “I think we belong in the group and we’ll be there.
“He’s back to what I always believed,” said Clement. “He’s a top-class horse. Every start this year, I wouldn’t have traded my position with anyone else, even when we got beat. People forget about him, but I never forgot about him.”
• Trainer Chad Brown had a big day on Super Saturday at Belmont Park, taking the Grade 1, $500,000 Flower Bowl Invitational for the second straight year with Stephanie’s Kitten and capturing the Grade 3, $500,000 Hill Prince with Takeover Target.
Stephanie’s Kitten’s win in the Flower Bowl was the completion of a form reversal that started with an encouraging second-place finish in the Grade 1 Beverly D.
The multiple Grade 1 winner had seemingly lost a step earlier in 2015 - finishing fourth in the Grade 2 New York and fifth in the Grade 1 Diana - but continued to progress on Saturday, working out a perfect trip under Irad Ortiz, Jr. and edging away to a 1 ½-length victory over her stablemate Danza Cavallo.
“I thought she ran a flawless race yesterday. She got a good trip and she delivered,” said Brown, who trains Stephanie’s Kitten for Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
Brown reported that Flower Bowl runner-up Danza Cavallo emerged in good shape.
The 4-year-old daughter of Sunday Break, who turned in a strong performance after being a late addition to the field, will likely not join Stephanie’s Kitten at the Breeders’ Cup, according to Brown.
“My first inclination is no,” Brown said of a trip to the Breeders’ Cup. “I’ll probably just keep her local and target a race like the Long Island, which she almost won last year, and then give her a much deserved break.”
Bouncing back from a puzzling sixth-place finish in the Grade 3 Saranac on September 5 at Saratoga Race Course, Takeover Target put away a talented group in the Hill Prince with ease, drawing off to win by 1 ¾ lengths over an obstinate Vision Perfect.
His next start remains up in the air, though he will not join Brown’s Breeders’ Cup contingent, according to his trainer.
“He ran terrific,” said Brown. “I don’t have any immediate plans for him but he’s not under consideration for any Breeders’ Cup races.”
• One day removed from multiple graded stakes winner Honor Code’s third-place finish in Saturday’s Grade 2, $400,000 Kelso, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey reported the colt returned from the race in good order and that he had no regrets opting for the one-mile race instead of the 1 ¼-mile Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in preparation for an upcoming start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Do I have second thoughts [about running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup]? No, but I thought Tonalist ran a very nice race,” said McGaughey.
Speaking on Honor Code’s trip over the sloppy main track, McGaughey acknowledged the lack of pace and track conditions as reasons why he might not have run his best race, but was nonetheless convinced he would move forward from the start.
With the Breeders’ Cup Classic four weeks away, McGaughey plans to continue training Honor Code from his home base at Belmont and ship to Keeneland as late as possible should the weather be agreeable.
“I’ll ship the last possible minute except if the weather gets bad up here, but otherwise I’ll go late as I possibly can,” McGaughey said.
• Zayat Stables’ El Kabeir has returned to the work tab in anticipation of an imminent return to the races. Scratched from the Kentucky Derby due to a foot abscess, the Scat Daddy colt was given 60 days rest in Kentucky, then returned to trainer John Terranova’s string in mid-July at Belmont Park.
“He’s doing great,” said Terranova. “He’s progressing well. At this point, we’re just trying to get him race fit and ready to return. He’s just doing so well and is so eager that we’re optimistic for him to come back strong.”