California Chrome showed up at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday looking like a horse for the ages, in build and demeanor. His past performances, including a sublime workout last weekend, showed that he was the finest 3-year-old thoroughbred in the country. He even had the odds in his favor, thanks to a swollen Belmont crowd that poured millions of dollars into bets that the chestnut colt would win the Triple Crown.
California Chrome’s only shortcoming, apparently, was that he had raced enough to be in that position.
Tonalist, who did not run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes, won the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park, denying California Chrome his shot at becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978. The storyline has become all too familiar in horse racing: The last six horses that arrived at the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown have lost to horses that had skipped the Derby, the Preakness or both.
“This is a coward’s way out,’’ one of California Chrome’s owners, the voluble Steve Coburn, said in a television interview after the race, referring to horses that had skipped one or more legs of the Triple Crown. Both Tonalist and Commissioner, who finished second, ran in neither the Derby nor the Preakness, and third-place finisher Medal Count skipped the Preakness.
“I’m 61 years old and in my lifetime I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this,’’ Coburn said. He added: “I look at it this way: If you can’t make enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races.’’
California Chrome, who won his previous six starts by a combined 27 1/2 lengths, including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, finished in a dead heat for fourth Saturday under Victor Espinoza as the 4-5 favorite. He got a good start, and ran on the rail in striking distance for most of the race. He swung four wide turning for home, but came up empty in the stretch.
Tonalist caught and edged Commissioner by a head at the wire. He ran the mile and a half in 2:28.52 and returned $20.40 for a $2 bet.
Tonalist, trained by Christophe Clement and ridden by Joel Rosario, was running in just his fifth race. He won his last race, his stakes debut, the Peter Pan at Belmont by four lengths. He was considered one of the few in the field capable of thriving over Belmont’s mile and a half. In dominating the Peter Pan Stakes a month ago on the same track, Tonalist displayed a high cruising speed — a style of running that has proved effective for past Belmont winners.
California Chrome’s recent history has been more high-profile. On May 3, he won the Derby by 1 3/4 lengths over Commanding Curve. In the Preakness two weeks later, he beat Ride on Curlin by 1 1/2 lengths.
Espinoza missed out on a Triple Crown for the second time. In 2002, he pulled into the Belmont aboard the Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, but the colt stumbled at the start and finished eighth.
“Well, I thought he was gaining ground,’’ Coburn said about Chrome’s effort late in the race. “But he didn’t have it in him, apparently.’’
California Chrome, a shiny chestnut colt with modest beginnings and a signature white blaze and four white stocking feet, captured the hearts and minds of casual fans and rugged horsemen with a running style and a lively personality that is a throwback to a bygone era.
As he embarked on his storybook run he amassed quite a following, made up of people who affectionately call themselves Chromies.
But Saturday, he failed to emulate the sport’s most cherished icons.
The Triple Crown has been won 11 times previously, first in 1919 by Sir Barton, although that was a retrospective title, the term not having been coined until the 1920s. The names of the other winners have been etched into racing history: Gallant Fox, 1930; Omaha, 1935; War Admiral, 1937; Whirlaway, 1941; Count Fleet, 1943; Assault, 1946; Citation, 1948. Then, after a 25-year hiatus, Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.
But the last 36 years have brought one failure after another. In that time, 13 horses won the Derby and the Preakness. All fell short of the Crown, losing by a whisker (Real Quiet, 1998) or a distance (Sunday Silence, 1989), or felled by an injury (Big Brown, 2008) or a stumble at the start (War Emblem, 2002). Of 12 horses that raced for a Triple Crown at Belmont, nine lost to horses that had not competed in both the Derby and the Preakness.
There are those who say that racing is in desperate need of a Triple Crown winner to give the sport a superstar that would attract new fans and take the spotlight off its issues with performance-enhancing drugs. But California Chrome, despite the fans he and his team have made, will not be that horse.
While Chrome has been hailed as the people’s horse, even in defeat, it is probably safe to say that there are no greater fans than the ones inside his barn.
Before this year’s Kentucky Derby, the biggest horse Art Sherman had been associated with was Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner, for whom he was an exercise rider. He never stopped believing, however, that his own big horse would come along. Enter California Chrome, whom he calls “my own Swaps.’’
Sherman spent 21 years as a jockey and still carries a personalized gold money clip from when he was a rookie rider at Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico. He recently downsized his operation from about 50 runners to around 17.
Before pairing with California Chrome, Espinoza’s career was on a downswing. He had won more than 3,000 races, but mounts were harder to come by, and at 42 he was a long way from his prime.
California Chrome was the first foal for Steve and Carolyn Coburn and their partners Perry and Denise Martin. He was bred from an $8,000 mare and a middling sire whose services at the time cost only $2,000.
But despite that compelling story, a Triple Crown sweep was not meant to be this year. Now racing will have to wait at least another year for a new Crown hopeful to come along and show fans that, despite modest beginnings, anything is possible.