11/28/2015 5:36PM

Tonalist prevails in hard-fought Cigar Mile

R.L. Thibodeau
Tonalist wins the Cigar Mile Handicap by a neck Saturday at Aqueduct.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Trainer Christophe Clement was looking for a reason not to run his two horses, Tonalist and Red Vine, in Saturday’s Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. Good thing he didn’t fine one.

In a strangely run race – at least from a time perspective – Tonalist rallied from next to last at the quarter pole to outfinish stablemate Red Vine and win the Grade 1 Cigar Mile by a neck at Aqueduct. Red Vine finished a neck in front of Matrooh, who finished three-quarters of a length in front of Mshawish.

It was three lengths back to Private Zone, the defending Cigar Mile champion and Saturday’s 6-5 favorite who never seemed comfortable despite setting pedestrian fractions. Full of Mine, a 104-1 shot, finished last, beaten only seven lengths. Marking was scratched.

Tonalist, a 4-year-old son of Tapit, added the Cigar Mile to Grade 1 wins in the 2014 Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles and the last two runnings of the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1 1/4 miles.

“It’s great, very gratifying to win a Grade 1 at a mile,” said Clement. “It just shows everybody he’s a top-class horse.”

According to owner Robert Evans, Tonalist will get a chance to prove it again next year as he plans to race him as a 5-year-old.

“I think we’ll keep racing him, there’s no reason not to,” said Evans. “He’s absolutely sound. He never has anything except Lasix. Why not? A lot of people think this game is about trading horses. It’s actually about race horses.”

Clement, baffled by Tonalist’s fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, said the horse came out of that race in good order, but he still wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to run again this year.

“I tried all week long to find a rational argument not running the two of them,” said Clement, who added blinkers to Tonalist’s equipment for this race. “They both trained great. They both looked great. It tells you sometimes we have to keep it simple.”

The Cigar Mile was far from simple. Private Zone looked like the lone speed on paper, but he had pulled himself up in a workout last Saturday at Palm Meadows, which ultimately proved to be a bad sign.

Breaking from the outside post in the Cigar Mile, Private Zone was fighting rider Martin Pedroza, who said he kept him outside to make Private Zone relax. A few times down the backstretch, it looked like Pedroza was going to pull up Private Zone.

“I always get him out there,” said Pedroza. “I do that to get him to relax. He’s too fast a horse for his own good.”

Not Saturday. On a track that had been sealed on two different occasions as light rain fell throughout the afternoon but was harrowed for the race, Private Zone went a quarter in 24.15 seconds and a half-mile in 48.50.

John Velazquez had Tonalist in fifth but only four lengths off the lead at that point. Around the turn, however, it appeared the field was getting away from Tonalist.

Private Zone, still racing awkwardly, was in front at the three-sixteenths pole, but the field was closing in, and Pedroza knew he was in trouble.

“I screamed at him a little bit,” said Pedroza. “I saw horses coming close to me. I said, ‘[Shoot],’ so I started getting after him. I reached for my stick. By the time I did, two or three horses go by, so I said, ‘Forget it.’ "

Matrooh and Mshawish were the two horses that went by Private Zone. Red Vine, racing along the rail under Joel Rosario, had to steady behind Private Zone and alter course, then he split two horses and looked like he was going to win.

But Tonalist, who was four wide, leveled off, lengthened his stride, and caught his stablemate in the final strides. Tonalist, who got his last quarter in around 23 seconds, covered the mile in 1:37.14, the slowest final time in 27 runnings of this race. He returned $6.40 as the 2-1 second choice.

“I didn’t want to shake him up too much, so I got him going little by little until he got comfortable,” said Velazquez. “By the five-sixteenths pole he started moving. Another horse came to him by the quarter pole, and now he grabbed the bridle and started running. Now my job was to try and put him in the clear, keep him running. When I put him in the clear and hit him, he responded right away. The last three-sixteenths of a mile was very good.”

Clement added, “The way he finished when he leveled off was absolutely spectacular.”

As a Grade 1 winner, Tonalist was running for the winner’s share of $750,000. He earned 450,000 and now has earned $3,647,000. He has won seven races in 16 starts.

While happy that Tonalist won, Clement knows Red Vine could have won as well.

“Very unlucky,” said Clement. “He ran a very good race.”

Both Tonalist and Red Vine will head to Payson Park early next week and be given a substantial break before pointing to 2016 campaigns.