06/05/2014 1:43PM

Trainer Clement out to prove he does just fine on dirt

Barbara D. Livingston
Tonalist will be just the second Triple Crown starter for trainer Cristophe Clement when the 3-year-old colt runs Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Robert Evans, the owner of Tonalist, recalled a conversation he had with the colt’s trainer, Christophe Clement, shortly after Tonalist won a maiden race by an eye-catching four lengths Jan. 18 at Gulfstream Park.

“Christophe said, ‘You created a problem for me. I’ve been critical of all these people who push these horses to the [Kentucky] Derby,’ ” Evans recalled Clement telling him. “ ‘I never had a dirt horse to think about that. Now you created a problem.’ ”

It was a nice problem to have.

Clement was not able to get Tonalist to the May 3 Kentucky Derby, but he appears to have him primed and ready for Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, in which Tonalist will be considered among the chief opponents attempting to derail the Triple Crown bid of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome.

For Clement, 48, it is his second starter in a Triple Crown race, coming 11 years after Dynever finished fourth in the 2003 Belmont Stakes, in which Empire Maker thwarted Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid.

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For Evans, 70, Tonalist is his first starter in a Triple Crown race, though his father, the late Thomas Mellon Evans, campaigned the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Pleasant Colony, who finished third behind Summing in the Belmont.

“I don’t think Christophe ever wanted to run in the Derby,” Evans said in a recent phone interview. “We were always going to do what was best for the horse.”

In Clement’s way of thinking, it usually is best for the horse when the owner is patient. He raves about the patience Evans has exhibited with all the horses in his care.

“He always puts the horse first,” Clement said. “A lot of new owners don’t understand that you have to be very patient. Patience is your best ally in racing.”

It’s not that Clement did not want to make the Derby with Tonalist. It’s that the horse wasn’t ready to make that race.

Tonalist came out of a late-March workout ill and with a foot issue that prompted Clement to skip the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5. That basically dashed any hopes of making the Derby.

On May 10, 11 weeks after his previous race, Tonalist won the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park by four lengths.

“Mr. Evans was very understanding,” Clement said. “We passed on the Wood. By bypassing the Wood, we bypassed the Kentucky Derby. Who knows? It might be a blessing in disguise. It’s OK. There’s more than just the Kentucky Derby.”

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Clement, a native of France, where his father and brother trained horses, has not needed the Kentucky Derby to carve out a nice career. He has won 1,472 races, including 191 graded stakes, and ranks 18th on the all-time list of North America-based trainers in purse money won with $91,177,261. He trained seven-time Grade 1 winner and multiple champion Gio Ponti, who finished second in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, though that year, the race was run on a synthetic surface.

Though more than 1,000 of his victories have come on turf, Clement proudly notes that he finished third in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Classic and second in the 2005 Dubai World Cup, the two richest dirt races in the world.

“Everybody thinks we don’t think about dirt,” Clement said. “Well, I never won the two richest dirt races, but at least we got placed in the two richest ones. The thing about being labeled [a turf trainer], it’s great. At least I get plenty of horses to train. Life is good. Myself, I’m very comfortable winning six furlongs on dirt or a mile and a half on turf. Once in a while, you get a horse like this coming into your barn, which is great.”

It was Evans who put Tonalist in Clement’s barn. Evans, the chairman of Crane Co., an industrial manufacturing company based in Stamford, Conn., has been in horse racing most of his life, thanks in large part to his father, who owned and operated Buckland Farm. Robert’s brother, Ned Evans, had a very successful breeding and racing operation, topped by the sensational Met Mile winner Quality Road.

Evans employs a handful of trainers and doesn’t necessarily move a horse to a particular trainer because of a certain perceived prowess. He likes Clement because “he’s very focused, professional, works hard, and he’s smart,” he said.

“I think a good trainer can train a good horse,” Evans added. “I don’t think a trainer teaches a horse to race on grass or dirt. I had horses with Scotty Schulhofer for 25 years. He had a reputation as a turf trainer. Scotty trained an awful lot of good dirt horses. The surface is irrelevant if the horse is good.”

Evans has had his share of good horses. Sewickley was a dual Grade 1-winning sprinter, an earner of more than $1 million, and a two-time multiple-champion New Jersey-bred. Shared Interest was a Grade 1 winner and the 2000 Broodmare of the Year. Evans has won two Grade 1 races with Marsh Side.

Evans bought Tonalist at the urging of consignor Cathy Sweezey, who was having difficulty selling this son of Tapit at auction.

“She kept telling me I should buy this horse,” Evans said. “She kept dragging me out to his stall. I’d go by the stall and look at him, and he’d always be asleep. Pleasant Colony did the same sort of thing. There’s a good bit of Pleasant Colony blood in him.”

Pleasant Colony is the broodmare sire of Tonalist, producing Settling Mist, who went 1 for 19 in her career.

Whereas Pleasant Colony raced five times as a 2-year-old, Tonalist raced once, finishing fourth to fellow Belmont Stakes starter Matterhorn on Nov. 16 at Aqueduct.

It was two months later when Tonalist won his first race, equipped with blinkers and placed on Lasix for the first time. In his next start, an allowance race, Tonalist finished second to Constitution, who would win the Grade 1 Florida Derby before an injury knocked him out of the Derby.
While Tonalist didn’t make the Derby either, his connections feel they are in the right spot in the Belmont.

“I never thought that physically he was the exact perfect Derby horse because he was just so immature physically,” Clement said. “I thought he was more of a Belmont or more of a Travers kind of a horse. This is the right place. To me, it’s fun. In the meantime, it won’t be easy. There’s a big favorite in there who’s doing everything right.”