Tonalist, Volponi Share Common Thread

Enjoy reading Steve Haskin’s article about Tonalist who foaled in Kentucky but was raised in Virginia by his breeders Rene and Lauren Woolcott.

October 18, courtesy of

He’s reliable, he’s honest, he loves a mile and a quarter, and he consistently runs fast speed figures. But is Tonalist good enough to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic…away from Belmont Park?

The main reason for asking that question is, prior to his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, run at his favorite track and over a sloppy surface he relishes, he was the beaten favorite in three consecutive stakes. He was 2-5 in the Suburban Handicap and 8-5 in the Met Mile, and last year was beaten at 4-5 in the Jim Dandy Stakes.

But he has won two Jockey Club Gold Cups and a Belmont Stakes, and he’s always in contention. It must be noted, however, that he is 5-for-7 at Belmont Park and 1-for-7 away from Belmont.

So who is the real Tonalist? With that big stride of his, is he basically a Belmont Park specialist and finds it more difficult negotiating the tighter-turn tracks, as we’ve seen at Saratoga and Santa Anita and will see at Keeneland? And finally, as I’ve asked before, is he a better horse with or without blinkers? And that is where you will find striking parallels between him and past Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Volponi, which we’ll get to a bit later.

The subject of blinkers was addressed prior to the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but it is still an interesting and thought-provoking topic and makes for some light reverie leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, as moot as it may be, considering trainer Chris Clement from his quotes seemed more inclined not to use them, but said later he will not make a decision until after his final work next week..

Sometimes, the key to picking Breeders’ Cup horses is to look for the overlay. You can be sure that during the course of the Friday and Saturday races you’re going to have several proven, classy stakes horses win at odds far greater than they’ve ever gone off before. That is why the Breeders’ Cup is about finding those live overlays.

There is no doubt that Tonalist is going to be a strong overlay in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, most likely going off as the fourth choice behind American Pharoah, Beholder, and Honor Code, despite his recent victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, his second straight win in that event. Let’s say he’s even third choice. The highest price he’s gone off at since his Belmont Stakes victory was 4-1 in last year’s Classic.  He’s been 3-1 or lower in eight of his last nine starts, but even coming off a Gold Cup score he’s still currently the 8-1 fourth choice at the Wynn Race Book. Many bettors will believe he simply loves Belmont Park and loves the slop, over which he is undefeated, and will not get too enamored with his Gold Cup victory.

Tonalist has been what one could call an honest, consistent enigma, whose running style has run the gamut from pace horse to stone closer. He’s run big sitting just off the pace and has run big coming from the back of the pack, some 15-20 lengths back. He just rarely wins from there. It seems perplexing how a horse with his kind of tactical speed drops so far out it without blinkers…at least on fast tracks. He has proven he can win from back there, but has suffered three defeats in big races because he simply had too much ground to make up. It just seems he’s run in several races throughout his career he should have won, but let it get away from him, either rallying too late or just not being able to finish off his opponents in the stretch.

Regardless of whether or not Tonalist wears blinkers, which allows him to keep in relatively close touch with the leaders, or runs without them, which has often turned him into Silky Sullivan, he’s always on the board. In short, you can count on getting your money’s worth and can bet him with confidence in the exotics, regardless of where he is on the racetrack, because he’s one of the few horses in the field who has consistently run big races at a mile and a quarter and moves up going a distance of ground.

Sometimes, when you’re handicapping races you can’t help but notice similarities between a horse in the field and a horse from the past. And when the horse from the past won big at a monster price, you naturally want to pay more attention to those similarities.

I can’t help notice a distinct similarity between Tonalist and 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Volponi, also an honest horse on any surface, at any distance, but not as naturally gifted at Tonalist. Volponi managed just seven victories in 31 career starts, while Tonalist has won six of 14 career starts.

On Oct. 22, 2000, trainer P.G. Johnson took the blinkers off Volponi and he won the Pilgrim Stakes by two lengths. On July 30, 2001, Johnson put the blinkers on and Volponi won an allowance race at Saratoga by 13 1/2 lengths. On July 5, 2002, Johnson took the blinkers off and Volponi won the Poker Handicap by 2 1/2 lengths in a blistering 1:32 1/5 for the mile at odds of 9-1. Then on Oct. 26, 2002, Johnson put the blinkers back on and Volponi shocked the world by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths at odds of 43-1. There is no doubt that Volponi ran his best races with a blinkers change, whether on or off.

Because of that pattern, Volponi was my pick in the Classic and my best bet of the Breeders’ Cup, cashing the biggest win ticket I had ever cashed on a horse. I just loved that Johnson was putting the blinkers back on him and I knew he was the one horse in that field that would love the mile and a quarter.

So, here we are 13 years later and we find that same pattern with Tonalist. On. Jan. 18, 2014, Clement put the blinkers on and Tonalist broke his maiden at Gulfstream by four lengths. On Sept. 27, 2014, Clement took the blinkers off and Tonalist won the Jockey Club Cup by almost two lengths. On May 2, 2015, Clement put the blinkers on and Tonalist won the one-mile Westchester Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:34 flat. On July 4, 2015, Clement took the blinkers off and Tonalist came from 13 lengths back to be beaten a head in the Suburban Handicap, giving the winner, Effinex, six pounds.

So, it is safe to say that Tonalist’s best performances on a fast track have come when the blinkers either went on or came off, much like Volponi. Phil Johnson said his decision to put the blinkers back on for the Classic was “a wake-up call,” and admitted it “probably was a lucky guess.”

Does Tonalist, despite winning the Gold Cup in the slop against only five opponents, need a wake-up call to fire his best shot in a big field against the best horses in training, away from Belmont on a tight-turned track, and with a good chance the pace is not going to be a very fast one? As impressive as he was in the Gold Cup, did winning at a mile and a quarter in a small field dull him just a little, having to come back in another mile and a quarter race? Would the addition of blinkers sharpen him a bit and make it easier for him to find a comfortable position in midpack, rather than drop far off the pace and then try to out-close Honor Code, something he’s been unable to do in past races? Honor Code has shown that in order to beat him you have to get a pretty big jump on him and leave him with too much ground to make up.

Clement first took the blinkers off Tonalist following a pair of defeats in the Jim Dandy and Travers, in which Tonalist ran well, but had little kick in the stretch, so the equipment change was understandable. The question is, was it the removal of the blinkers that attributed to his subsequent victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, or was it the fact that Tonalist simply is a far better horse at Belmont than he is at Saratoga, where he is 0-for-3? The blinkers didn’t stop him from winning the Belmont Stakes.

Although it may sound like it, this in no way is meant to suggest that Clement put the blinkers back on Tonalist for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I’m in no position to suggest anything to any trainer, never mind one as successful as Clement. It just seems to be an interesting thought to ponder based on the results of his past blinker changes and the stark similarities to Volponi. In analyzing the Classic, I am merely putting the question out there.

The belief here is that depending on whether he gets a suitable pace, Tonalist has a big chance to win the Classic with or without blinkers, but we don’t know what that pace is going to be, especially with Liam’s Map out of the race. I admit it would be kind of exciting to see Clement step out of the box and make a change coming off a victory. But he knows his horse better than anyone and no doubt will make the right decision. If he elects to keep the blinkers off, he’ll just have to hope Beholder or Smooth Roller challenges American Pharoah and that Tonalist doesn’t have too much ground to make up, as he did in last year’s Classic. He doesn’t need exceptionally fast fractions as much as he needs a contentious pace, with American Pharoah and Beholder, and possibly Smooth Roller, hooking up fairly early in the race, somewhere down the backstretch or at the half-mile pole.

Perhaps even a couple of snappy works prior to the Classic will be sufficient to keep Tonalist sharp and focused and closer to the pace, if that’s the way it sets up. He turned in his first work since the Gold Cup on Saturday, going six furlongs in 1:14. Not exactly snappy, but he doesn’t need anything too fast having run a mile and a quarter two weeks ago. We’ll see what he does in his next work.

At the price he’s likely to be, I definitely will have a win bet on Tonalist and include him in almost all exotics. He’s too honest and talented not to. But I admit I probably would bet a little more on him with the blinkers back on in the hope it would sharpen him a bit and enable him to get a more tactical position.

It seems like folly for a journalist to spend the majority of a column, once again, expounding on whether a horse should wear blinkers or not. And as mentioned, Clement appears to be leaning against it, but did say a decision won’t be made until after his final work, so nothing is definite. But, again, it is just part of analyzing a race and thinking out loud and nothing more. And the similarities with Volponi seem worth mentioning, even if nothing more than an interesting parallel. Whether or not Tonalist wears blinkers, you can count on him giving 100 percent as always, and you can’t ask for more than that.
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