06/13/2014 4:05PM

Family ties run deep for Belmont winner Tonalist, owner Evans

Debra A. Roma
Robert "Shel" Evans leads Tonalist into the winner's circle after the colt, who he purchased privately as a yearling, won the Belmont Stakes on June 7. Tonalist is a grandson of Pleasant Colony, who was bred and raced by Evans' father.

In June 1981, Robert “Shel” Evans was in the box seats at Belmont Park watching dual classic winner Pleasant Colony, bred and raced by his father Thomas Mellon Evans’s Buckland Farm, attempt to become the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown. It was not to be, as Pleasant Colony finished third to Summing in the Belmont Stakes.

“It was very quiet after he didn’t win,” Robert Evans said. “He was a wonderful horse. … He didn’t have a very good ride in the race. He got too far behind and came running to the stretch, and it was clear he wasn’t going to get there, and it was very disappointing.”

The Triple Crown drought has now continued a record 36 years – and on June 7, Evans was on the other side of history.

Carrying Evans’s colors, the lightly raced Tonalist edged Commissioner by a head to win the Belmont Stakes as California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth, joining Pleasant Colony among the 13 horses since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but fall short of the Triple Crown.

Tonalist, whose broodmare sire is Pleasant Colony, was the first starter in a Triple Crown race owned by Evans, 70.

“I’ve been where [California Chrome’s co-owner] Steve Coburn’s been, and it’s not fun,” Evans said. “We loved California Chrome. We hoped he’d win the Triple Crown. But we love our horse, too.”

Evans and trainer Christophe Clement both declined comment on Coburn’s declaration following the Belmont that fresh horses, such as Tonalist, should not be allowed to start in the final two legs of the Triple Crown if they did not start in the Derby.

Evans grew up around the Thoroughbred business, thanks to pedigree. His father, Thomas Mellon Evans, a cousin of prominent Thoroughbred owner-breeder and philanthropist Paul Mellon, founded Buckland in 1964. In addition to Pleasant Colony, Thomas bred and raced 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and champion Pleasant Stage and 1992 champion older male Pleasant Tap. Robert Evans and his brothers, Edward and Thomas Jr., were co-owners of the latter. Edward went on to establish his own prominent breeding and racing operation in Virginia, breeding and selling 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam and campaigning the brilliant homebred Quality Road, whose multiple Grade 1 victories included the 2010 Metropolitan Handicap.

Robert Evans, who is chairman of Crane Co., an industrial manufacturing company based in Connecticut, bought his first horse in 1965. The Jockey Club member and former New York Racing Association board of trustees member has owned Courtland Farm in Easton, Md., for more than two decades. He credits his father, who died in 1997, and brother Edward, who died in 2010, as major influences – and their memories were strong as the Belmont approached. The day before the race, Robert paid a visit to a Connecticut cemetery.

“I went to my father’s grave and thanked him for putting me in the position to be doing this,” he said. “My brother was a great breeder and owner and did very well in the business, and so did my father, and I’ve kind of tagged along behind them. But now they’re both gone, and I feel I have to fill their shoes if I can.”

Tonalist’s ties to racing success run deep, as his pedigree is littered with Belmont winners. The Tapit colt was bred by Rene and Lauren Woolcott’s Woodslane Farm in The Plains, Va. The couple, with a steeplechase background but relative newcomers to Thoroughbred flat racing at the time, purchased the winning Pleasant Colony mare Settling Mist for $800,000 out of the 2007 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. She is a half-sister to four stakes producers, including Easter Bunnette, dam of 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, and The Bink, dam of multiple Grade 1 winner Riskaverse. Tonalist’s pedigree also includes champion sprinter Plugged Nickle, 1992 Belmont winner and breed-shaping sire A.P. Indy, 1999 Belmont winner and champion Lemon Drop Kid, and 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall.

Tonalist was sent to Wayne and Cathy Sweezey’s Timber Town Stable in Lexington, Ky., to prep for the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale. But despite his loaded catalog page, the colt, who was going through a growth spurt at the time, failed to meet his reserve with a high bid of $195,000. Robert Evans had yearlings in the Sweezeys’ consignment who also failed to sell but was urged to take a closer look at the colt sharing the barn.

“Cathy Sweezey urged me 10 times probably to look at the horse and dragged me back,” he said. “And I said, ‘I didn’t get any money for the other horse. I don’t have any money to spend on him.’ She said, ‘You’ve got to buy this horse. He didn’t sell, so they discounted him substantially.’ And I said, finally, ‘All right, I’ll buy him.’ She made me do it.”

Evans said the colt’s ties to Pleasant Colony were one factor in his decision.

“Pleasant Colony is a very good broodmare sire, an underrated broodmare sire,” he said. “Those of you in the business know that a lot of breeders breed 200 mares a year. My father would not breed more than 36 mares a year, thought that was plenty, so he didn’t breed nearly as many, but his statistics were wonderful.”

The long-bodied Tonalist was slow to develop, making just one start as a juvenile. He was briefly considered for the Kentucky Derby trail before a lung infection and a foot issue caused him to miss the Wood Memorial in April. The colt subsequently earned his place in the Belmont with a four-length victory May 10 over Commissioner in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont. Evans praised the patience of Clement – who also was winning his first classic – in getting Tonalist to the starting gate.

“He’s 17 hands, a great big boy, sort of like his grandfather, Pleasant Colony,” Evans said. “Christophe doesn’t push horses. He takes great care of his horses, and I’m patient. I’ve been in the game a long time, and I know you have to be patient, take care of the horse, and that’s what we did. … He was sick before the Wood Memorial, and we couldn’t run him in it,  so we couldn’t run in the Derby, [and] we aimed for the Peter Pan. Christophe Clement did a good job of getting him ready, and he surprised me. It wasn’t a very nice day – there were thunderstorms, lots of rain, and a muddy track. And [Tonalist] just galloped, and that’s the clue he was a good horse because he was only three-quarters fit. So we had four weeks to get ready for [the Belmont], and Christophe had him just right.”

Although Tonalist was an outside purchase, Evans has found success with his own breeding program. His other top runners have included Shared Interest, a homebred daughter of Pleasant Colony who won the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap in 1993. She went on to earn Broodmare of the Year honors, producing 1999 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Cash Run and Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes winner Forestry, both of whom Evans sold for seven figures as young horses.

He also campaigned multiple Grade 1-winning homebreds Sewickley and Marsh Side, the latter out of a graded stakes-winning Pleasant Colony mare bred by his father. His other homebreds include graded stakes winner New Normal, by Forestry, and multiple stakes winner Lemon Drop Mom.