NEW YORK — On a day that seemed perfectly drawn up for a long-awaited coronation — stands packed with fans, ideal weather, fast track — the 146th Belmont Stakes denied California Chrome his place in horse racing history.
California Chrome was looking to end the longest gap between Triple Crown winners the sport has ever seen, and trying to become the 12th horse to complete the three-race sweep. But like so many of the attempts before him, this one came up painfully short.
Trying to make up ground on the outside, California Chrome couldn’t make a strong enough push down the stretch and finished in a dead heat with hard-charging Wicked Strong, the horse owned by Beverly-based Centennial Farms, for fourth. The race was won by Tonalist, with Commissioner placing second, and Medal Count third.
Even though California Chrome appeared to break perfectly from the gate, jockey Victor Espinoza sensed trouble almost immediately.
“He was just a little bit empty today,” Espinoza said. “I noticed something, as soon as he came out of the gate, he was not the same . . . by the 5/8 pole, he was empty. I tried to move him out to see if it could make a difference, but no.”
It would have capped a remarkable six Saturdays for California Chrome, who had positioned himself for a run at history by winning the Kentucky Derby May 3, then taking the Preakness Stakes May 17. With each win, attention grew around the country — more than 1,000 media credentials were issued for the Belmont — and anticipation steadily built, with hard-core horse racing fans and even casual observers wondering if this would finally be the horse to end the streak that dates to 1978, when Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner.
We’d been down this road before. Ever since Affirmed’s sweep, racing had seen horse after horse get close by winning the first two races, only to come up short in the 1½-mile Belmont. Chrome’s bid was the 13th time since 1978 that someone had won the Derby and Preakness. The first 11 hopefuls — starting with Spectacular Bid in 1979, and ending with Big Brown in 2008 — failed in the Belmont. The 12th, I’ll Have Another in 2012, didn’t even make it to the starting gate; he pulled out on the eve of the race.
Like the others, California Chrome brought a compelling story with him to Belmont Park. He was the heavy favorite to win Saturday’s race — he was also favored in the Derby and Preakness — but his homespun tale of unimpressive parents and blue-collar owners screamed likeable underdog. Breeders and handicappers knocked the colt’s pedigree, since he was the foal of a mare who cost $8,000 and a stallion whose fee was just $2,500.
But with each subsequent victory — California Chrome came in riding a six-race win streak, which started Dec. 22 — he continued to captivate, getting closer and looking more confident about joining horse racing’s most exclusive club.
Anyone expecting Steve Coburn, the public voice and face of California Chrome’s ownership team, to take the high road after watching his horse get beat was in for quite a surprise. He blasted a system that allows anyone — specifically Tonalist and Commissioner — to run in the Belmont after skipping both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
“I’m 61 years old, and I’ll never see in my lifetime another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this,” Coburn said. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day 1. I look at it this way: If you can’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races.
“This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion. You know what? If you’ve got a horse, run him in all three. Those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. This is the coward’s way out.”
On paper, Tonalist certainly would have been the fresher horse for the lengthy Belmont. He came in with just four career starts (California Chrome had 12), and last raced May 10, when he won the Peter Pan Stakes by four lengths, also at Belmont, also with Joel Rosario riding, and also with Commissioner coming in second. Tonalist went off on Saturday at 9-1.
“This is very important to me, like always. This is the Belmont, so this is great,” said Rosario, who guided Ride On Curlin (last in the Belmont) to a second-place finish in the Preakness. “I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him.”
When Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002, it meant for the first time that none of the 11 members of the Triple Crown club were still alive. From 1919 until 2002, that was one impressive streak.
Now another streak, impressive in its own way, has its grip on racing. Millions thought California Chrome would be the one to end it, but he beat only six of his 10 challengers.
The long Triple Crown wait continues.