ELMONT, N.Y. – The day demanded history.
They ran the Belmont Stakes on a blue-sky Saturday with Manhattan shimmering like Oz on the clear horizon. The crowd was enormous, and so was its desire to witness the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
But the history that horse racing so badly needed died just as it always seems to, in the long Belmont stretch with a fresh horse crossing the finish line first.
California Chrome, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, finished tied for fourth, a length behind winner Tonalist, as yet another effort to coronate a 12th Triple Crown winner crashed on a New York evening.
Commissioner, a 27-1 shot who led or was close all the way, finished second, a head back.
Medal Count was third. The winning time was 2 minutes, 28.52 seconds, well off Secretariat’s record 2:24.
Tonalist, the Peter Pan Stakes winner who paid $20.40 to win and is owned by Robert S. Evans, was ridden ideally by Joel Rosario despite his No. 11 post.
With a huge crowd roaring, California Chrome broke well. He was never worse than fifth and was in perfect striking position at the top of Belmont’s stretch as the finish of this 1 1/2-mile marathon turned into a four-horse contest.
Jockey Victor Espinoza pushed him one last time, but the 4-5 favorite never fired, ending in a dead-heat for fourth with second-choice Wicked Strong.
“I waited for the same kind of kick he had been making,” said Espinoza, “but today he was a little flat.”
Tonalist had an easy trip under Rosario, settling into the third spot for most of the race and pulling ahead of a surprisingly stubborn Commissioner in his final stride.
“I wasn’t even sure he won,” said victorious trainer Christophe Clement. “We actually thought he finished second. But we got lucky.”
California Chrome’s feel-good story, a $10,500 horse with the average-Joe owners, captivated a public that otherwise typically ignores the sport.
Following the race, the horse’s emotional co-owner, Steve Coburn, wasn’t feeling good after watching another Triple Crown dream squashed by a horse who skipped its previous two legs.
The last six horses with a Triple Crown chance were beaten by horses that didn’t run in the Derby or Preakness, including Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, beaten by Birdsong in the 2004 Belmont.
“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. “If you’ve got a horse, run him in all three. This is a coward’s way out. 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.”
Relayed Coburn’s remarks, Evans, who explained that a lung infection had kept his horse out of the Wood Memorial and thus made a Derby start impossible, refused comment.
The stress and demands of three major races in five weeks is wearying for 3-year-olds. Add a field stacked with well-primed rivals, and the 36-year drought is understandable.
Evans bought Tonalist, who was competing in just his fifth career race, at a discount when no one else at Saratoga’s 2012 yearling sales wanted him.
“(The breeder) asked me 10 times if I wanted to buy the horse, and I told her: ‘No, I had two horses of my own who didn’t sell, and I don’t have the money to buy him,’ ” said Evans.
When the price eventually was lowered, he relented.
The winning jockey was subdued, admitting that California Chrome’s failure disappointed him, too. Asked if victory was “bittersweet,” Rosario said it was.
“I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome,” Rosario said. “If I was going to get beat, I wanted to get beat by him.”
As evening fell and night began, California Chrome walked off the track and disappeared through a gantlet of fans.
“Victor (Espinoza) seemed to think he handled the surface fine,” said Alan Sherman, Chrome’s assistant trainer. (Art Sherman, Alan’s father and Chrome’s trainer, refused comment.) “He seemed to come back fine. But we’ll know more back at the barn.”
But whether his health is good or bad, most of those disappointed fans who left Belmont won’t care.
“A Triple Crown would have been nice,” Rosario said. “Maybe next year.”