SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Late winter proved to be a frustrating time for trainer Christophe Clement when it came to his talented 3-year-old colt Tonalist, whose campaign had to be put on hold after he developed a lung infection while in south Florida.
Given ample time to recover and develop, Tonalist returned with back-to-back graded stakes victories capped by the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes on June 7. The bay Tapit colt looks to continue his progression and extend his win streak to three in Saturday's Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy for 3-year-olds at Saratoga Race Course.
Owned by Robert S. Evans, Tonalist is the 8-5 program favorite for the 51st renewal of the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy, Saratoga's traditional hometown prep for the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers on August 23. Ten of the past 16 Travers winners, including four of the past five, have come out of the Jim Dandy.
"It's great when your patience pays off, and that's a credit to his owner who gave me the freedom to do that," Clement said. "To be competing on this level is very exciting for me."
Tonalist will break from post 4 in the Jim Dandy, which drew a field of seven. Joel Rosario, aboard for wins in the Belmont and the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont on May 10, gets the return call at co-highweight of 123 pounds.
"He's doing well. He came out of his work in good shape and I'm very excited to have Mr. Rosario ride him on Saturday," Clement said. "Everything's good. I just have to train him and keep him fit and sound. Life is good."
Though he is cutting back from the 1 Â½-mile Belmont for the Jim Dandy, Tonalist is 2-for-2 at nine furlongs. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park on January. 18 to kick off the 2014 campaign and rolled by four lengths on a sloppy, sealed track in the Peter Pan, his first start since finishing second to eventual Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Constitution in an entry-level allowance at Gulfstream on February 22.
Clement said Tonalist has continued to progress since the Belmont, in which he stalked the early pace and gained steadily down the stretch to catch Commissioner by a head at the wire.
"I think he's fit, but I think he can move up from the race, too," he said. "He had a break after the Belmont and he put on quite a bit of weight. He's been very playful and he thinks life is great. Unfortunately for him over the last three weeks he's been back to work, but he still thinks that life is great. He's a very playful kind of a horse, and that's a great thing. He's taking his work very well."
The other Grade 1 winner in the Jim Dandy field is Wicked Strong, who captured the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5 and has since run fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
Trained by Jimmy Jerkens for Centennial Farms, Wicked Strong dead-heated with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome in the Belmont after making a belated run from mid-pack.
"I was a little disappointed. He ran OK, but I didn't think he ran as good as we thought he would," said Jerkens. "He was a little lackluster. He spit the bit out down the backside for some reason. I thought he'd be sitting there with a nice pull, but for some reason he spit the bit and [jockey Rajiv Maragh] had to get after him. He finished OK. All in all, I guess he finished slightly better than the rest of them did."
Maragh returns to ride at 123 pounds from outside post 7 as the 2-1 second choice.
Late-running Kid Cruz was entered in the Jim Dandy off successive stakes victories in the $150,000 Easy Goer and Grade 3 Dwyer, both 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park, the latter on July 5. Irad Ortiz, Jr. was named to ride from post 5 at 8-1.
Claimed for $50,000 last fall, Kid Cruz won the Private Terms and Federico Tesio in Maryland this spring prior to a an eighth-place effort in the Preakness. Trainer Linda Rice gave brief consideration to the Belmont before going in the Easy Goer on the undercard.
"I obviously took a little different route," Rice said. "The Easy Goer really turned him around. He needed that race, and it was a pretty attractive spot. It helped him and got him back in the game, and he's really turned the corner since."
Easy Goer runner-up Legend will try Kid Cruz again in the Jim Dandy for trainer Jim Bond. The Tiznow ridgling has been first or second in four of his five starts, all this year, the lone victory coming against older horses in a one-mile maiden race at Belmont on May 4.
"He had a little problem at Gulfstream. He actually had a testicle that was twisted and it was bothering him," Bond said. "I had it removed, and that's when he came back and won in New York. He's a really nice horse."
Ulanbator also has a lone maiden win over elders to his credit heading into the Jim Dandy. Trained by Ian Wilkes for owner Mary Ann Charlston, Ulanbator was second to Tapiture in the Grade 3 Matt Winn at Churchill Downs on June 14 and third after stumbling at the start of the Dwyer.
"You've got to give him a shot," Wilkes said. "He's run good, and you have to give him a chance to get better. The idea of running in the Dwyer was to come back in this race. He's come along and has progressed nicely. He's still getting good. I always thought later in the year he'd be a better horse."
Having considered Friday's $100,000 Curlin for Commanding Curve, owner West Point Thoroughbreds decided to enter the Kentucky Derby runner-up in the Jim Dandy. The Master Command colt is 0-for-4 in 2014, including a ninth-place finish in the Belmont.
Cousin Stephen, a recent one-mile allowance winner over older horses at Parx for trainer Chad Brown, drew the rail post for the Jim Dandy. Also entered in the Curlin, Cousin Stephen was third in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis and sixth in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby during the winter.