The longest Triple Crown drought in horse racing history will continue for at least one more year.
Tonalist galloped to the finish line first at Saturday's 2014 Belmont Stakes, a shocking upset bid that ended California Chrome's chance at becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. California Chrome managed a fourth-place finish as he struggled to adjust to the mile-and-a-half track.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Steve Carp had the report:
Unofficial order of finish: 1st: Totalist. 2nd: Commissioner. 3rd Medal Count. 4th: California Chrome and Wicked Strong (dead heat)— Steve Carp (@stevecarprj) June 7, 2014
California Chrome got stuck on the rail early in the race, but eventually made his way to the outside for the race's final push. However, Tonalist's pace down the last stretch was too much for the Triple Crown hopeful to overcome.
After the race, California Chrome owner Steve Coburn wasn't happy with the result. New York Daily News provided some of his words:
"If you can't make enough points to get in the [Derby], you can't run in the [Preakness and Belmont]." -California Chrome owner Steve Coburn— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) June 7, 2014
"It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since [the Kentucky Derby]." -California Chrome owner Steve Coburn— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) June 7, 2014
USA Today's Dan Wolken offered his opinion on Coburn's words:
The races should be more spaced out, yes. But the idea that a horse should have to run in the Derby and Preakness to be in the Belmont? No.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) June 7, 2014
The history of the sport is full of great horses who weren’t ready for the Derby but were by the Belmont. Have to beat all comers to get TC.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) June 7, 2014
Affirmed's 1978 Triple Crown remains the most recent in the sport's history. California Chrome is the 13th horse over the last nearly four decades to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but fall short at the Belmont. Overall, 23 of the 34 horses that won the first two legs have failed to win the third.
Heading into Saturday's race having captured decisive victories at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, California Chrome was a 3-5 favorite (per BelmontStakes.com) when the morning line odds were announced. He'd been pegged as the best horse in this year's crop since before the Kentucky Derby, having won four straight races by an average of more than six lengths as Triple Crown season approached.
Despite the increase in competition, California Chrome has exhibited only slightly less dominance. He held a five-length lead over the field at Churchill Downs before pulling up at the end, and only Ride on Curlin was within eight lengths of him at the Preakness.
The trip to Southeastern New York just proved too much. California Chrome finished behind first-place Tonalist and was not able to turn on the afterburners the way he had during his brilliant month of May.
At Pimlico and Churchill Downs, jockey Victor Espinoza was able to find the perfect middle-ground strategy. He held steady in third place during both races before kicking California Chrome into high gear and pulling away down the stretch.
Instead, Espinoza likely experienced some deja vu with the trip back to the Belmont Stakes.
In 2002, Espinoza rode War Emblem to wins in the Derby and Preakness before disappointing in the 1.5-mile jaunt in Long Island. War Emblem got out slow and never quite recovered, finishing in eighth place as Sarava played the spoiler.
Espinoza came into Saturday with a disconcerting two wins in 67 starts at Belmont Park, a blip on his resume that he seemed motivated to rectify.
“I never thought I was going to be in this situation again now over a decade (later), but I’m back, I learned a lot and I’m ready this time to be able to handle it different and be ready for this race,” Espinoza told Jerry Bossert of the New York Daily News.
It's hard to know where blame starts and ends in these situations. California Chrome, who looked sterling all week during his practice runs, never quite found his groove. Espinoza, who did little but praise his horse over the past few days, again found himself on the short end at a track that's becoming an increasingly stubborn thorn in his side.
It's fair to wonder whether the Triple Crown toll finally caught up with the horse. Before these races, the shortest previous break California Chrome had on record was three weeks; he'd never raced within the same calendar month. With three races in only a little more than a month's time during the Triple Crown—including the longest and most difficult being last—exhaustion was perhaps the biggest threat.
Wearing his patented (and fought-for) nasal strip, California Chrome showed no obvious signs of outward fatigue. For the first time in his three-year-old season, it seemed like he just wasn't up to snuff against the competition.
While the disappointment is obviously palpable at the moment, California Chrome's story is anything but a failure.
The product of a $10,000 breeding of two largely unheralded horses, California Chrome was never expected to be a Triple Crown contender. Horses at that price are typically local breeds, equipped with owners who hope to make an eventual profit via a few lower-profile wins near their home. The thought of Louisville, Baltimore and Elmont likely never entered the heads of Steve Coburn and Perry Martin.
Now, they're the owners of perhaps the single best investment in horse racing history. The pair have already turned down an offer of $6 million for a majority stake in California Chrome and will still have plenty of money on the table despite the loss.
Then again, it's fair to imagine all involved would trade it all for one more shot at history.
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