It's possible that if you could ask 2-year-old filly Tonasah, yesterday's Astoria Stakes from Belmont Park just wasn't long enough. The daughter of Malibu Moon unseated jockey Javier Castellano as the field came out onto the track, and proceeded to evade outriders for eight minutes according to the official chart, racking up what observers guessed was a three-mile gallop up and down the stretch and both turns of the 1 ½-mile racetrack.
For someone interested in reading equine body language, the most remarkable part of Tonasah's jaunt was not its length as much as her joy in evading hopeful captors on horseback or foot. The maiden runner matched stride with one of the New York Racing Association's outriders, stretching out after a several-furlong warm-up to stay just out of reach of the rider's outstretched hand.
When she began changing direction, the outriders strategically posted themselves ahead and to one side of her, which was when the filly began her most balletic moves. Tonasah discovered that she could let her back feet slide and switch from one side of the pony to the other in a skipping lateral motion that seemed at times bound to cause her to clip the ponies' hind heels. Her ears remained pricked, head held high the whole time.
Ultimately, it took two more outriders (one to replace the first, whose pony looked spent after several sprints up and down the final turn next to Tonasah) and a handful of people on foot to corral the filly.
Although the crowd enjoyed the spectacle (it cheered for each of her many stretch runs, so it seems she should at least be acquainted with the sounds of winning after the experience), it put a lump in the throats of experienced horsemen—especially when she began eyeing the inside and outside rails as her travels allowed her to bisect the track.
“She hadn't spent a lot of time here at Belmont,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who had conditioned the filly primarily at Saratoga. “Usually the horses will look for the gap that they go on and off. She just wasn't familiar with it and when they started chasing her, she got a little excited.”
Pletcher reported that Tonasah was feeling fine Friday morning and would likely return to the track on Saturday, with a breeze planned for the next couple of days.
“We still do [think highly of her],” Pletcher said. “One of the reasons we decided to run her in a stake first time out is that she was so professional. We haven't had an ounce of trouble from her at all.”
Pletcher said the horse seemed overwhelmed by the crowd and lost her footing while spooking, causing Castellano to become unseated (he was also fine). It's difficult to simulate the race-day commotion during training, but Pletcher anticipates that she will work more with a pony in future exercise.
“I was surprised by her fitness level,” Pletcher joked dryly on Friday.
The outriders and pony riders were surprised, too. Taylor Houser, one of the pony riders on the NYRA team said she has seen horses evade capture for that long before, but it's relatively rare.
“You have to go with them, and you can't read their minds so you just have to follow them,” said Houser. “You have to understand she's got minus 160 pounds on her—she didn't have the rider. People say the outrider ponies are slow, but they're carrying 160 pounds against a horse that has no rider.
“Your heart just kind of drops because you hope that nothing happens, they don't get the reins over head, don't get their foot stuck on anything.”
Tonasah will regroup and is now likely to make her debut during the upcoming Saratoga meet. Hopefully, it will be a less eventful one.
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