It has been nearly seven weeks since the final leg of the Triple Crown was contested and the landscape of the 3-year-old division is almost unrecognizable from where it was the morning of Tonalist's breakout triumph.
Prior to June 7, it was all about California Chrome, he of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes mastery who headed into the Belmont Stakes with history for the taking.
In the aftermath of Chrome's fourth-place run in the 11/2-mile race, the colt's injured right front hoof as a result of being stepped on at the start and his owner's public relations meltdowns continued to claim the lion's share of the focus.
The horse who prevailed that day has quietly gone about his business, his connections content to let Saturday's Grade II, $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course serve as their next statement.
Tonalist, the unassuming winner of the Belmont Stakes, now stands as the 8-5 morning-line favorite out of post No. 4 in the field of seven entered for the Jim Dandy. And one only needs to look back at last year's edition of the 11⁄8-mile race to be reminded why the second half of the season merits as much attention as the Triple Crown when it comes to defining the best of the division.
Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, and Will Take Charge, the eventual 3-year-old champion, ran 1-2 in the Jim Dandy 12 months ago and now stand to face each other for handicap division supremacy in next week's Grade I Whitney Handicap.
Tonalist and the rest of this year's 3-year-old male class need to stockpile top-level wins in order to overtake California Chrome's status as the pro tem leader. Less strange things have transpired, however, and trainer Christophe Clement says the son of Tapit is giving off what he believes are signs of a horse that still has time to peak.
"He came out of the Belmont in very good shape," Clement said during a national teleconference this week. "He had a bit of a vacation for a week or 10 days after the Belmont Stakes. To look at, he's put on a bit of weight, but in a good way. Mentally he seems to be very happy, very fast mentally.
"We have him in the Jim Dandy, but we also want him to make the Travers (Aug. 23) afterward, so we're just trying to keep a little bit of room to work after the Jim Dandy."
Tonalist's stamina over the Belmont's 12-furlong distance allowed him to nip Commissioner by a head that day. However, the bay colt has used his tactical ability to go 2-for-2 over the Jim Dandy distance, including a 4-length win in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 10.
With no other obvious speed in the race, Tonalist could find himself on the front end Saturday. Robert Evans' colt tends to finish strong while working in company with stablemate Life in Shambles so Clement is confident Tonalist can adapt to any pace scenario.
"Life in Shambles always seems to show a bit more speed in his work than Tonalist, and Tonalist always seems to be going better at the end when they're galloping out fast," Clement said. "The better ones seem to be adapting — they can adapt to the different kind of pace scenario in the race."
Sunday's Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park is poised to lure a saltier bunch of 3-year-olds including top filly Untapable, winner of the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose Stakes, as well as graded stakes winners Bayern, Wildcat Red and Medal Count.
Not everyone went in an opposite direction of Tonalist, though. Jimmy Jerkens-trained Wicked Strong, winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial last April, is also making his first start since the Belmont Stakes having finished in a dead heat for fourth with California Chrome.
"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. All in all, I guess he finished slightly better than the rest of them did."
Having considered Friday's $100,000 Curlin Stakes for Commanding Curve, owner West Point Thoroughbreds also decided to enter the Kentucky Derby runner-up in the Jim Dandy. The late-running Master Command ridgling enters off a ninth-place finish in the Belmont.
As for California Chrome, he's resting up this summer for an anticipated return to the track in the fall.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.