06/07/2014 8:19PM

Clement wins his first classic

Debra A. Roma
Christophe Clement (right) and Robert Evans with Tonalist after his Belmont victory.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Christophe Clement used to resent when he would be characterized in the media as a turf trainer. But he learned to live with that reputation after taking some advice from his friend and colleague Bill Mott who said “never complain about being labeled as any kind of trainer because it keeps good horses coming your way.”

Clement figures to have many more good horses coming his way while putting to rest any doubt about his ability to win important races on dirt, after sending out Tonalist on Saturday to capture one of the most prestigious of all dirt races run in the U.S. each year, the mile and one-half Belmont Stakes.          

Perhaps the best word to describe Clement would be “patient,” and it was his patience that helped get Tonalist to the Belmont fit and prepared enough to overcome a wide trip to win the final leg of the Triple Crown in just his fifth lifetime start.                                

“Patience is your best ally in racing,” said Clement, who gave Tonalist ample time to recuperate from a foot problem that forced him to miss the Wood Memorial and dashed any hopes of him making the Kentucky Derby earlier this spring. Instead he pointed Tonalist, a son of Tapit owned by Robert Evans, for the Peter Pan with the Belmont as his major goal.

“Whenever I speak to Mr. Evans, the horse always comes first, which isn’t always the case with some owners,” said Clement. “We came to the Belmont with a fresh horse. I think we also had a bit of a home field advantage. I don’t think it matters if it’s turf or dirt, there’s something to be said for having a fresh horse on your home grounds.”

::2014 BELMONT STAKES: Recap, video, chart, and more

Tonalist isn’t Clement’s first good dirt horse. He also trained Dynever, who finished fourth in the 2003 Belmont and third later that same year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The most notable horse he’s had since coming to the U.S. from his native France in 1991 was Gio Ponti, a two-time Eclipse Award winner. His only Grade 1 winner on dirt before Saturday came in 2009 when Funny Moon captured the Coaching Club American Oaks.

“I feel very comfortable training horses to go five furlongs on the dirt or a mile and one-half on turf,” said the 48-year-old Clement. “I do believe a lot in pedigree. Eventually pedigree kicks in, and that is probably the reason why the further he [Tonalist] went the better he went. We try to adapt our way of training to whatever type of horse we get.  This is a great win for my team, my staff, as well as Mr. Evans, who always believed in us.”

Clement said winning the Belmont was also a little extra special for him, since he’s been stabled at Belmont Park for so many years.

“Even though I’m French, I consider myself a New Yorker and from that standpoint, this is a great race to win,” said Clement.

Clement also had no reservations about adding his name to the list of trainers who have spoiled Triple Crown bids over the past 36 years.   

“People are looking at this result as a negative and are very disappointed,” said Clement. “But there should be nothing negative about what happened today. California Chrome created a wonderful vibe and that is something racing needs. Of course I was going to do everything I could to beat him, to win the race. It may be disappointing, but I think I’ll sleep very well tonight.”