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 100,000 hoping to see history, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. California Chrome’s loss extended the longest drought without a Triple Crown champion.
California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was bitter about horses skipping the first two legs and then stealing the Belmont.
Six of the last 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 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, he 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.
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 the mood turned ugly after the race. Three tough races in five weeks proved too demanding for California Chrome, who was sent off as the heavy 4-5 favorite.
Affirmed remains the most recent Triple Crown winner, in 1978.
The raucous crowd was silenced when it became obvious that California Chrome lacked his usual punch in the stretch.
Jockey Victor Espinoza realized long before then that his chestnut colt wasn’t up to the grueling 1 1/2 -mile trip around the track’s sweeping turns.
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.
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.
Tonalist joined the growing list of Triple Crown spoilers, making California Chrome the 12th horse since Affirmed to lose his Triple try in the Belmont, the longest race in the series.
Trained by Frenchman Christophe Clement, Tonalist was making just his fifth career start.
We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won, Clement said.
It was great.