ELMONT, N.Y. — Robert Evans laughed when asked if Tonalist, his Belmont Stakes contender, has been a pleasant surprise.
"Anytime you have a horse good enough to run in one of these races, it's a pleasant surprise," said Evans, who owns a 500-acre farm in Easton.
He would know. This is his first Triple Crown entrant in almost 50 years as a thoroughbred owner and breeder. On the other hand, his father, Thomas Mellon Evans, owned Pleasant Colony, winner of the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
"He was the luckiest guy in the world," Evans said.
Though Tonalist didn't run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes, he's considered one of the strongest threats to Triple Crown contender California Chrome. He won the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.
Evans, 70, bought Tonalist as a yearling, which is unusual for him. He usually buys broodmares so he can breed horses for future sale. But his friends, Wayne and Cathy Sweezey, convinced him to take a chance on the colt.
He said Tonalist spent about a month on 500-acre Courtland Farm in Easton before being shipped off to train. The horse now works under New York-based trainer Christophe Clement.
Evans is chairman of Crain Co., an industrial manufacturing company based in Connecticut. But since he stepped down as CEO of the company, he has focused more and more on horse breeding. He's owned the farm in Easton for 21 years. He usually sends his broodmares to Kentucky to breed, then brings the foals back to Maryland, where they're raised until it's time to sell them or place them in training.
The years have taught him how unpredictable a game it is.
He remembered confidently telling his father Pleasant Colony would win the Kentucky Derby after the horse took the Wood Memorial prep 33 years ago.
"I wish I was that confident in Tonalist," he said with a chuckle.
Chrome looks fit
California Chrome took the last gallop of his Triple Crown quest Friday morning and looked ready to go, according to assistant trainer Alan Sherman.
"The horse is doing great," Sherman said. "I couldn't ask anything more from him. I think if he runs his race, he's going to be pretty solid."
Though some horses are worn down by this point in the five-week Triple Crown slog, California Chrome never misses a feeding and has actually gained 30 pounds since the Kentucky Derby, Sherman said.
He'll jog at 5:30 Saturday morning, as he did before the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Then he'll wait for his 6:52 p.m. date with destiny.
Intriguing long shot
Medal Count was a popular underdog choice at the Kentucky Derby before a messy trip left him eighth in the field of 19.
But trainer Dale Romans said the horse has worked so well in recent weeks that he had to give him another shot in the Belmont Stakes.
"He told us we should bring him, the way he's been training," Romans said. "He's proven he can run with everybody, other than California Chrome maybe. And the mile and a half, he should relish."
Romans was converted from skeptic to believer in California Chrome at the Kentucky Derby. But the Belmont remains a different beast in his mind.
"History says it's going to be tough for California Chrome to close it out," he said. "Something always happens. So we want to be the ones here to make him earn it."
Medal Count is a 20-1 choice on the morning line, and he's still drawing interest from handicappers looking for a smart bet.
"He's a big, good-looking horse who had a rough trip in the Derby," said NBC analyst Randy Moss. "Since then, he's come back with some exceptional workouts. So I'm interested."