NEW YORK — California Chrome failed in his bid to win the first Triple Crown in 36 years on Saturday, losing the Belmont Stakes to long shot Tonalist and leaving his owner to complain others took “the coward’s way out” by skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Before a crowd of tens of thousands hoping to see history, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. The raucous crowd was silenced when it became obvious that California Chrome lacked his usual punch in the stretch.
The chesnut colt’s loss extended the longest drought without a Triple Crown champion. Affirmed remains the most recent Triple Crown winner, doing it in 1978.
California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was bitter about horses skipping the first two legs and then stealing the Belmont. Six of the past eight Belmont winners did just that.
“That’s the coward’s way out,” he said. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races. It’s all or nothing.”
Coburn had been in a festive mood earlier in the day, waving his cream-colored cowboy hat to fans and signing items they tossed to him in his box seat.
But his mood turned ugly after the race.
He thought the other 10 horses ganged up on California Chrome, who was second early, dropped to fourth and then fifth before dead-heating for fourth.
“Our horse had a target on his back,” Coburn said. “If you’ve got a horse, run him in all three. I’ll never see, and I’m 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this.”
Coburn had voiced a similar complaint after the Preakness, saying only the 20 horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to run in the other two legs. He also believed that horses skipping the Preakness should not be allowed to return in the Belmont.
Tonalist, the fifth wagering choice at 9-1 odds, was a fresh and rested horse making his debut on the Triple Crown trail. He last ran and won the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont dirt on May 10.
The horse beat Commissioner, another newcomer to the Triple Crown, by a head. Those two horses finished in the same order in the Peter Pan. Tonalist ran the distance in 2:28.52 and paid $20.40, $9.60 and $7.
Commissioner returned $23.20 and $13.20, while Medal Count was another length back in third and paid $13.20 to show.
Samraat was sixth, followed by General a Rod, Matterhorn, Commanding Curve, Matuszak and Ride On Curlin.
The trick to winning the Belmont leg of the Triple Crown often lies in surviving the Triple Crown’s grueling schedule of three races in five weeks — not in the track’s 11⁄2-mile distance, a length rarely run on the dirt in the U.S. The Triple Crown starts on the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby going the classic 11⁄4 miles and the Preakness Stakes is two weeks later over 13⁄16 miles. The Belmont follows in three weeks.
That schedule proved too demanding for California Chrome, who entered the Belmont as the heavy 4-5 favorite. And Saturday wasn’t the first time Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza has had a chance to win the Triple Crown. He was aboard War Emblem in 2002 when the horse stumbled out of the gate, had to rush to the front, but faded in the stretch and finished eighth.
California Chrome became the 13th horse to try to win the three races over the five-week stretch since Affirmed did it in 1978. Among those that couldn’t do it are some of the best horses in recent times: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008) and I’ll Have Another (2012).
Just 11 horses have won the Triple Crown. Sir Barton did the first in 1919. He was followed by Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in ’35, War Admiral in ’37, Whirlaway in ’41, Count Fleet in ’43, Assault in ’46, Citation in ’48 and then three superstars in the 1970s — Secretariat (’73), Seattle Slew (’77) and Affirmed.
On Saturday, Espinoza realized from the Belmont’s start that California Chrome was headed for an off day.
“As soon as he came out of the gate, he wasn’t the same,” Espinoza said.
Alan Sherman, the son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman, agreed.
“When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn’t respond,” he said. “He was wore out, I think. Victor seemed to think he handled the surface fine, and he seemed to come back fine.”
Once the official result was posted, fans sat in stunned silence before heading to the exits.
Penny Chenery, the 92-year-old owner of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, had been ready to welcome a new member to the exclusive club. She and others with ties to previous Triple Crown winners came to watch what they hoped would be California Chrome’s big day.
“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t have a Triple Crown winner, but I’m happy for the winners,” she said.
California Chrome broke quickly but was pressed immediately by Commissioner and General a Rod. Espinoza eased California Chrome back into third along the rail.
Approaching the final turn, California Chrome was maneuvered to the outside. He angled four-wide turning for home, just to the outside of Tonalist, who was close to the pace the entire race. Espinoza started whipping left-handed in the lane but California Chrome had no response.
“I thought he was gaining ground, but he didn’t have it in him, apparently,” Coburn said.
The defeat snapped California Chrome’s six-race winning streak. His rise from a humble pedigree and his working-stiff owners resonated with sports fans who rarely take an interest in horse racing.
California Chrome’s owners spent $8,000 on a mare they bred to a stallion for $2,500, and were called “dumb asses” by a trainer for buying a mare who gave no indication that she could produce a standout offspring who could run fast.
Conditions seemed aligned for the Triple Crown drought to end. California Chrome thrived during his three-week stay at Belmont Park. His chestnut coat gleamed and he gained weight after the Preakness on May 17. His owners, trainer and jockey oozed confidence.
But this fairy tale didn’t have a happy ending.
“The horse tried, that’s all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life, I’ll always have that in my heart for that horse,” trainer Art Sherman said.
Coburn, who with Perry Martin formed Dumb Ass Partners to race their one-horse stable, had vowed that California Chrome “would go down in history.”
It just wasn’t the kind they wanted to make.