The discussion surrounding the three-year-old championship race has justifiably centered around two West Coast-based colts -- dual classic winner California Chrome and Los Alamitos Derby hero Shared Belief, last year's juvenile champion. Not to be ignored, however, is Tonalist, the Belmont Stakes winner who returns to action Saturday in the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.
An overlaid 9-1 in 1 1/2-mile Belmont on June 7 following a dominating performance in the Peter Pan four weeks earlier, the Tapit colt will be a strong favorite to retain his unblemished stakes record in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy, a prep for next month's Travers.
Stamping himself as a colt with a future when a good second to eventual Florida Derby winner Constitution in a Gulfstream allowance in February, Tonalist missed an intended start in the Wood Memorial, and thus the Kentucky Derby, due to a lung infection.
When back to ideal health, the Christophe Clement trainee skipped through the slop when taking the May 10 Peter Pan by four lengths, and was game in wearing down a determined Commissioner by a head in the Belmont, denying California Chrome's bid for the Triple Crown.
"It's great when your patience pays off, and that's a credit to his owner (Robert S. Evans) who gave me the freedom to do that," Clement said. "To be competing on this level is very exciting for me.
"I think he's fit, but I think he can move up from the race, too," Clement added. "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."
Tonalist is seeking to become the fifth horse to win the Belmont and Jim Dandy. Arts and Letters (1969), Affirmed (1978), and Conquistador Cielo (1982) turned the double en route to Horse of the Year honors, while Palace Malice, who won both stakes in 2013, is a leading candidate for Horse of the Year honors as a four-year-old this season.
Wicked Strong, who thus far has been most accomplished at Aqueduct by winning the Wood Memorial and finishing a close third in the last fall's Remsen, will attempt to revert to the form that saw him win the nine-furlong Wood by 3 1/2 lengths. The Jimmy Jerkens pupil finished fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, dead-heating with California Chrome in the latter.
"I was a little disappointed. He ran OK, but I didn't think he ran as good as we thought he would," Jerkens said of the Belmont. "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."
Another Derby-Belmont veteran in the Jim Dandy is Commanding Curve, who will run Saturday instead of in Friday's $100,000 Curlin. The deep-closing son of Master Command rallied to finish second at Churchill Downs, but showed little in the "Test of the Champion" when settling for ninth in the field of 11.
Kid Cruz, a four-time stakes winner this term for Linda Rice, made a favorable impression on the Belmont Stakes undercard by taking the $150,000 Easy Goer by 3 1/4 lengths with a last-to-first rally, but was not as dominant over the same track and distance in last month's Dwyer. Seemingly under serious pressure to keep pace around the far turn, the son of Lemon Drop Kid eventually got going and won, but by a modest three-quarters of a length.
"The Easy Goer really turned him around," Rice said. "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."
Also in the Jim Dandy are two colts Kid Cruz has beaten this summer, Easy Goer runner-up Legend and Dwyer third Ulanbator. Completing the field is the Grade 3-placed Cousin Stephen, a recent Parx allowance winner who was also entered in Friday's Curlin.
Rock Fall, a maiden and allowance winner during the Belmont spring meet by a combined margin of 12 1/2 lengths, takes on stakes company for the first time Saturday in the Grade 2, $200,000 Amsterdam, a 6 1/2-furlong prep for next month's King's Bishop.
The Todd Pletcher-trained son of Speightstown cruised to a six-furlong maiden win by 9 1/4 lengths on May 11, and then returned on June 4 to beat allowance company by 3 1/4 lengths after leading by nearly twice that margin with a furlong to go.
Among the stakes veterans set to face Rock Fall are Noble Moon, hero of the Jerome in early January and most recently sixth in the Wood Memorial; Bay Shore victor Coup de Grace, a rough-trip sixth in the Woody Stephens and winner of the Oh Say at Delaware Park subsequently; and Captain Serious, who led for nearly all of the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer before conceding the race late to entrymate Kid Cruz.
Also lining up are Tiznowforamerica, an allowance scorer at Belmont last time for Tom Albertrani; C. Zee and Casiguapo, one-two in the $90,000 Cherokee Run at Gulfstream on July 5; and New York-bred allowance winner John's Island.