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. 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.
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"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 compete 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.
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.
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.
"I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," said Joel Rosario, who rode the winner.
Tonalist 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.
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. In 2012, I'll Have Another won the first two legs, but was scratched the day before the Belmont with a career-ending tendon injury.
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."
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.
Espinoza lost his second chance at a Triple Crown. He was aboard War Emblem in 2002, when that colt stumbled at the start of the Belmont and lost all chance.
"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.