Triple Crown Mystique Lives on as California Chrome Falls Short at 2014 Belmont

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Triple Crown Mystique Lives on as California Chrome Falls Short at 2014 Belmont
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Such an impossible dream—a bargain-basement $8,000 horse, virtually flying in, some sort of mythical Pegasus, to take the Triple Crown and save the troubled sport of racing.

"A fairy tale," said one of the colt's owners, Steve Coburn. But in this tale the wolf blows down the brick house. In this tale the frog never becomes a prince.

In this tale, the colt, California Chrome, turns into a pumpkin or, even worse, an also-ran.

In this tale, California Chrome finishes tied for fourth in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, leaving us bereft and...well, not bewildered, because we've seen this act before, but hardly enthralled.

California Chrome, foaled and raised in the state's central valley, Harris Ranch, near Coalinga, not too far from Interstate 5, had won the Kentucky Derby and had won the Preakness.

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He had won two legs of the Triple Crown. Oh joy. People who didn't know a fetlock from a forehead suddenly became racing fans. They were captivated by the chance for history: the chance California Chrome would become the first horse in 36 years to win all three of the sport's major races for three-year-olds.

The Derby is 1 1/4 miles, and the Preakness is 1 3/16 miles. Ah, but the Belmont, outside New York City, is 1 1/2 miles, so much more demanding. A horse wins it, of course, Saturday. But despite the hype and the hope, it wasn't California Chrome.

The way it wasn't Big Brown in 2008 or Smarty Jones in 2004 or any of the other 10 colts that, since Affirmed in 1978, went 2-of-2 but couldn't go 3-of-3.

"New York, New York," Sinatra sings. "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." Chrome couldn't make it, for whatever reasonweariness from the previous two races, an indifferent ride by jockey Victor Espinoza or a sneer from the racing gods.

A horse named Tonalist did make it, winning the 146th Belmont and denying California Chrome the victory, as well as denying the racing community its 12th Triple Crown winner. And instead of offering congratulations, the more outspoken of Chrome's two owners, Coburn, who earlier made the fairy-tale comparison, offered harsh words.

There's no rule any horse has to run in any or all of the Triple Crown races, and Tonalist, as well as runner-up Commissioner, skipped both the Derby and Preakness. They were rested. Coburn was frosted.

"It's a coward's way out," Coburn told NBC TV, alluding to the first- and second-place finishers. "If you've got a horse, run him in all three."

Sour pinot noir? Perhaps, but Coburn does have a point. Horse racing isn't basketball or football, where you hold out a player so he'll be fresh in the second half.

Then again, since the birthday of all horses is January 1, no matter when they are foaled, the extra few weeks from the Derby, the first Saturday in May, to the Belmont, in early June, may be the difference in a horse becoming physically mature.

The West had a special rooting interest, of course. California, the area, the people and the teams, so often, are ignored by the East Coast types who think the country ends somewhere near Ohio. Yet the wishing for this was not merely provincial but continental.

A woman at the front of Belmont's enormous grandstand held a hand-painted sign: "Triple Chrome," clever play on words. Others in the crowd wore tiny nose strips, as they were duplicating the much larger strip—more like a patch—California Chrome was allowed to use by special permission of the New York Racing Association.

Horse racing, as tennis and golf, needs stars, a Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, a Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams, a Tiger Woods—remember him?—a Rory McIlroy. Horse racing needs a California Chrome.

Suddenly, as when Woods appeared in early 1997, Chrome took over the sports pages, the Internet and the TV sports shows. The sport, needing a star and a hero, found one. And now that star has faded from view.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Art Sherman

Five weeks of publicity, of promise, for a horse with white fur above all four hoofs; of a 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, who arose from anonymity and said things such as, "I can train with anybody. I never got respect"; of an owner, Coburn, who milked his moments of fame to an extreme.

And now it's done. Now the banners come down. Now the reality intrudes.

Horses, we're advised, no longer are bred for stamina but for speed, a claim, one supposes, reflected in the success—and failure—of California Chrome. If this horse, hailed and idolized, couldn't break through, maybe no horse will. Maybe the Triple Crown will remain unattainable.

The short break between each of the three races and the grueling length of the Belmont are other reasons often cited for why the 36-year drought may continue. 

"I don't see why he can't stay a mile and a half," Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown in '78, said of California Chrome on TV before post time.

"He is better than the other horses."

He wasn't when it counted in the Belmont. As the railbirds sigh, "That's racing." Is it ever.

 

Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered 12 Triple Crown races. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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