NEW YORK – 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 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 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.
"Our horse had a target on his back. They won't run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. They'll get him in the Belmont."
Commissioner, which 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 27½ 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. Perhaps influencing the result was a bloody gash on his right front foot that was discovered after the race.
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 Saturday. "But he didn't have it in him, apparently."
Tonalist caught and edged Commissioner by a head at the wire. He ran the mile and a half in 2 minutes, 28.52 seconds and returned $20.40 for a $2 bet.
"I wasn't even sure he won," said victorious trainer Christophe Clement. "We actually thought he finished second. But we got lucky."
Tonalist, 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.
California Chrome's recent history has been more high-profile. On May 3, he won the Derby by 1¾ lengths over Commanding Curve. In the Preakness two weeks later, he beat Ride on Curlin by 1½ lengths.
California Chrome, a shiny chestnut colt with modest beginnings, captured the hearts and minds of casual fans and rugged horsemen with a running style and a lively personality.
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 past 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 to complete a Triple Crown at Belmont, nine lost to horses that had not competed in both the Derby and the Preakness.