Virginia Breeders of Tonalist Hope for Belmont Victory

Tonalist winning the Grade II Peter Pan by 4 lengths. Photo courtesy Chelsea Durand.

Tonalist winning the Grade II Peter Pan by 4 lengths. Photo courtesy Chelsea Durand.

“It’s the lightning in the jar.”

That’s the first thing Lauren Woolcott says when you ask her about Tonalist, the son of Tapit that she and husband Rene bred — the horse that will go into the gate for Saturday’s Grade I Belmont. The bay colt was a 4-length winner of the Grade II Peter Pan in May and looks to claim a classic victory in the grueling 1 1/2-mile race.

Of course, it’s easy to call Tonalist lightening in a jar now, but for a long time, he was the horse nobody wanted.

In 2007, the Woolcotts spent $800,000 to purchase Settling Mist, a Pleasant Colony mare with a Seeking the Gold filly in utero. The mare had one foal who had already been shipped off to Mexico, something Woolcott says would probably give the couple cause to hesitate now, but at the time raised no red flags. Although experienced in the steeplechase world, the Woolcotts were just getting into the thoroughbred game at the time.

“We were pretty green,” Woolcott says.

Settling Mist had a tough time. The Seeking The Gold filly broke her maiden — but not much else. A Smart Strike baby did nothing. Then the mare slipped to A.P. Indy in the waning years of his life. By that point, the Woolcotts knew they needed to inject a little speed into the mare, so in 2010, they tried to get into Speightstown. The horse’s book was full, so they turned to a horse that was, at the time, second-best: Tapit.

Of course, we all know how that story goes. Tapit may have stood for $50,000 at the time, but his stud fee quickly doubled as he blossomed into the superstar of the Kentucky breeding sheds. That didn’t sway buyers, however. When the Woolcotts entered Settling Mist into the elite Fasig-Tipton November sale, she got so little interest that the couple decided to withdraw her before she entered the ring. The only serious look the mare got was from Shel Evans’ bloodstock agent — and he passed.

So the Woolcotts kept Settling Mist and her Tapit colt, who was raised at their Woodslane Farm in The Plains, Virginia. The colt, of course, was Tonalist.

“He was very laid back, really super conformation the whole way,” Woolcott said. “Very easy, pleasant horse. Easy keeper.”

When Tonalist was sent to Wayne and Kathy Sweezey for a bit of prep before the Saratoga Sale, Kathy Sweezey felt the same way: “Kathy was over the moon about him,” Woolcott said. “He was a little fat and didn’t have any definition. She would take him out to the ground pen, and she would have to get after him. But she just loved his temperament.”

The Sweezeys and the Woolcotts may have loved Tonalist, but no one else did. No one, except the man who had passed up Settling Mist over a year before.

“He was always a big and scopey horse, but somewhere around March or April of that year, he went through one of those growth spurts and kind of got a little awkward,” Wayne Sweezey told the TDN. “We had him up there at Saratoga and we ended up buying him back [for $195,000], but Shel Evans had a few horses in our consignment and we ended up getting him sold.”

Sweezey, for his part, figures it had something to do with the Pleasant Colony connection: Evans’ father Thomas Mellon Evans campaigned Pleasant Colony in the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, before the horse finished third in the Belmont. Tonalist, according to Sweezey, was a lot like his broodmare sire as a yearling: “Whenever we would put Tonalist back in his stall, he’d take a few nips of hay and then lay down and sleep,” Sweezey explained. “Pleasant Colony did exactly the same thing, and I think that since Shel was around the barn so much and saw that, it may have contributed to his buying the horse.” Evans has since told the Bloodhorse that if the horse wins the Belmont, it would be ” the win Pleasant Colony didn’t get.”

Tonalist left Saratoga to start justifying all that faith. After a fourth-placed debut at Aqueduct in the fall of his 2-year-old year, the bay colt went on to break his maiden by 4 lengths at Gulfstream in January. He was second in an allowance at that same oval the next month, then returned on May 10 to dominate the Peter Pan, beating likely Belmont opponent Commissioner in the process.

The Woolcotts have sold Settling Mist to Chuck Fipke since Tonalist’s birth, but they have retained the 2-year-old half-sister, a Speightstown filly called Settle ‘n Speight, now in pre-training in Florida. Tonalist, trained by Christophe Clement, looks strong going into Saturday’s race (you can watch his May 31 breeze below).

“I’m typically a Triple Crown supporter, but I’m very much not rooting for California Chrome, except to come in second!” Woolcott said.