January 12, 2016
When it comes to selecting a subject for my weekly column, fixtures such as Royal Ascot, the Arc weekend, Belmont Park’s Super Saturday and the Breeders’ Cup inevitably represent an embarrassment of riches. Some horses whose achievements thoroughly deserve recognition invariably miss out, as I was reminded by last week’s publication of the 2015 Eclipse Award Finalists.
Quite a few of these finalists have slipped through the Caulfield net, a prime example being the recently retired Tonalist. How had I managed to miss this four-time Grade I winner? Well, his GI Belmont S. victory coincided with Australia’s win in the Derby; his two victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup came on Super Saturday in an action-packed week on both sides of the Atlantic, and his final win, in the GI Cigar Mile H. came on the same day that another son of Tapit— Mohaymen–confirmed his status as one of the winter favorites for the Kentucky Derby.
But how could anyone not admire a colt such as Tonalist, who possessed the class and the versatility to become a Grade I winner over a mile and a half, then a mile and a quarter before ending his career with a last-ditch victory under top weight over a mile?
Tonalist has the distinction of being Tapit’s only graded winner over a distance as long as a mile and a half. The only others to come anywhere close are the turf mare White Rose (GIII Glens Falls S. over 1 3/8 miles), Careless Jewel (GI Alabama S. over 1 1/4 miles) and Headache (GII Hawthorne Gold Cup over a mile and a quarter). Then there’s Frosted, who chased home American Pharoah at a respectful distance in last year’s Belmont S., after his fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
Of course a mile-and-a-half Group 1 victory almost counts as a negative in many breeders’ eyes in Europe, so I dread to think what it might do to a prospective stallion’s popularity in the U.S., where the emphasis on speed is even more pronounced.
It could be argued that victory in the Belmont nowadays goes not to the best stayer, but to the individual whose stamina fails the least (with American Pharoah’s time of 2:26.65 suggesting that he was a notable exception).
Tonalist won in the respectable time of 2:28.52, but there is no escaping the fact that the final quarter of his Belmont was comfortably the slowest section of the race. He was never again asked to tackle a mile and a half, but that surely is just a reflection of the fact that American racing offers no other Grade I opportunities over that distance for a dirt horse like Tonalist. In other words, Belmont winners effectively have no choice but to drop down the distance scale.
Tonalist’s predecessor Palace Malice surely endeared himself to breeders by winning three graded races over a mile as a 4-year-old, including the GI Metropolitan H. Tonalist also acquitted himself with plenty of credit in the 2015 Metropolitan, though the concession of 5lb to Honor Code proved too much.
While Tonalist was clearly capable of high-class form over a mile, a mile and a quarter arguably was his ideal trip, as he showed with his stylish victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Even his maiden special weight success, which earned him ‘TDN Rising Star’ status in January 2014, saw him putting in his best work at the end of the mile and an eighth.
Tonalist no doubt owed some of his staying power to Pleasant Colony, the sire of his dam Settling Mist. Although the Belmont was the only leg of the Triple Crown to escape Pleasant Colony, he often proved quite a strong influence for stamina, with the likes of St Jovite, Denon and the Belmont S. winner Colonial Affair among his Grade I winners. His broodmare daughters have several Grade I winners to their credit which won over a mile and a quarter or more, including Farda Amiga (Alabama S.), Urbane, Summer Colony and Marsh Side (Canadian International and Northern Dancer S.).
The fact that Settling Mist cost $800,000 as an 8-year-old indicates the strength of her bloodlines. Settling Mist’s second dam, Toll Booth, earned the title of Broodmare of the Year at the age of 20 in 1991, when her daughter Christiecat was in the middle of a very successful career. Christiecat was no less than the seventh stakes winner out of Toll Booth, following a team led by the top-class Plugged Nickle and his Grade III-winning sister Key To The Bridge.
Also among Toll Booth’s stakes winners was Tonalist’s second dam, the Topsider mare Toll Fee who was second at Grade II and Grade III levels. Toll Fee maintained family traditions, with three of her daughters producing Grade I winners and no fewer than five of her daughters have at least one graded winner to their credit. The other Grade I winners were that fine turf mare Riskaverse (out of The Bink, a daughter of Seeking The Gold) and Havre de Grace (out of the Carson City mare Easter Bunnette). Needless to say, Havre de Grace was no ordinary Grade I winner: she defeated the males in the Woodward S. before thrashing Royal Delta in the Beldame and was subsequently sold for $10 million.
Tonalist’s fourth dam is none other than the celebrated Missy Baba. This daughter of My Babu would also have been a worthy winner of the Broodmare of the Year title, as her six stakes winners included the Grade I winner Sauce Boat, the champion sire Raja Baba and Gay Missile. The highly influential Gay Missile is ancestress of A.P. Indy, the Preakness winner Summer Squall, the Belmont S. hero Lemon Drop Kid and the likes of Derby winner Ruler Of The World and champion older horse Duke of Marmalade.
Mention of A.P. Indy is a reminder that Tonalist was the first to complete the GII Peter Pan S.-Belmont S. double since A.P. Indy in 1992. A.P. Indy, of course, also appears in Tonalist’s pedigree as the grandsire of Tapit.
Appropriately, Tonalist has now been retired to Lane’s End, which did so well with A.P. Indy and Lemon Drop Kid. Tonalist, too, surely has most of the qualifications required to prove very effective as a stallion. A quadruple Grade I winner, he was sired by a two-time champion sire from a grand-daughter of a Broodmare of the Year and shares the same female line as a Horse of the Year. One qualification missing from his CV is a win at two years, but the same could have been said of his grandsire Pulpit, and that omission hardly proved a handicap to Pulpit.
With his fee set at $40,000, Tonalist ranks second only to American Pharoah among the new sires of 2016, though he shares that distinction with his old rival Honor Code, another of Lane’s End’s new recruits. Members of the same male line, it is going to be fascinating to see which of the two proves more effective.