Groundhog Day at the Belmont Stakes. Another Kentucky Derby-Preakness champ shot down one race short of the Triple Crown. Another heavy favorite exposed by the myth of inevitability. Another spoiler.
"There's nothing negative," trainer Christophe Clement said after his horse, Tonalist, at 9-1 odds, ruined what so many thought would be the first Triple Crown completed in 36 years, leaving California Chrome in fourth place Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
Thirteen consecutive times -- counting I'll Have Another's scratch two years ago -- a Derby-Preakness winner has not won the Belmont. And the repeating story becomes one of unfulfilled expectations.
Not to Clement. And not for racing in general, he insisted.
"California Chrome created a wonderful thing," Clement said. "Five-thirty in the mornings, 500 or 600 people came to see him train. That was great. It was wonderful to see the large crowds [Saturday]. But it's nothing negative."
Furthermore, Clement said of his fellow Tonalist connections -- the owner, jockey, exercise rider, stable workers and so on -- "I'm sure we will manage to find a way to sleep tonight."
Clement 48, is a Frenchman with a sly wit who considers himself a New Yorker since settling in his business here in 1991. He lives in Garden City.
Both his father and brother were successful trainers in France, and Clement has had a solid run of top Grade I horses in the States. But this was Clement's first victory in a Triple Crown race, and Tonalist owner Robert Evans acknowledged that Clement "obviously has a reputation -- which he resents -- of being just a grass trainer.
"He's just a great trainer," Evans said. "This horse [Tonalist] happens to like to run on dirt. We're not going to show him grass except to eat it."
Clement insisted he "used to complain about this," but was told that, having any sort of reputation meant he was getting recognition, "so I don't complain anymore."
Working with Dominican jockey Joel Rosario aboard Tonalist -- "He speaks Spanish very good," Rosario said of Clement, whose perfect English comes out in a heavy French accent -- Clement said, "I do not have to give him much direction. In this case, I talked to [Rosario] three times and told him, 'Just keep [Tonalist] comfortable.'
"This horse has amazing rhythm. And I always believe in pedigree; he has tremendous stamina. He trained really well and he was in his normal surroundings" at Belmont.
Beyond that, Clement did not claim any insight in cracking the code of knocking off a Triple Crown favorite.
"The first time I saw Tonalist," Clement said, "he was not impressive in workouts at all as a 2-year-old. Too tall, too leggy, needed time to fill out."
Clement offered a Gallic shrug. "The Triple Crown, if it was easy to do," he said, "it would mean nothing."
So next for Tonalist, Clement said, "I'm going try to find a tough race somewhere."
He grinned. "That's a joke," he said.