California Chrome's Belmont Stakes Run Magnifies Difficulty of Triple Crown

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIJune 8, 2014

ELMONT, NY - JUNE 07:  California Chrome #2, ridden by Victor Espinoza, walks down the track after losing the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 7, 2014 in Elmont, New York.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Everything was working in California Chrome's favor to break the drought of Triple Crown winners ahead of the 2014 Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, immediate injury out of the starting gates beset him, as trainer Art Sherman's prohibitive favorite finished fourth in a dead heat with Wicked Strong.

The bid to join the other 11 Triple Crown winners fell short, much to the disappointment of horse racing fans. It also highlighted just how elusive the ultimate accomplishment is and should continue to be.

2014 Belmont Stakes Results
Pos. Post Horse Jockey Trainer Lengths
1 11 Tonalist Joel Rosario Christophe Clement -
2 8 Commissioner Javier Castellano Todd Pletcher Head
3 1 Medal Count Robby Albarado Dale Romans 1
4 2 California Chrome Victor Espinoza Art Sherman 1 3/4
4 9 Wicked Strong Rajiv Maragh Jimmy Jerkins 1 3/4
6 7 Samraat Jose Ortiz Rick Violette 4
7 10 General a Rod Rosie Napravnik Mike Maker 5 1/4
8 3 Matterhorn Joe Bravo Todd Pletcher 10
9 4 Commanding Curve Shaun Bridgmohan Dallas Stewart 12 3/4
10 6 Matuszak Mike Smith Bill Mott 55
11 5 Ride On Curlin John Velazquez Billy Gowan 87
Source: NBC Broadcast

Since 11 entries were running at Belmont Park this last Saturday, California Chrome's chances of capping off the Triple Crown in Elmont, New York, were significantly shortened. Check out this number from ESPN Stats & Info:

Larger fields in the modern era create greater traffic issues. That's something California Chrome suffered from Saturday. Jockey Victor Espinoza couldn't get closer than three lengths to the lead for most of the trip.

Tonalist won the race after not riding in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes, though he did participate in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park and won. Nevertheless, he drew the ire of California Chrome owner Steve Coburn, per the New York Daily News:

Considering that California Chrome was only 1.75 lengths behind Tonalist, perhaps Coburn has a point, though he could have been a little gentler in expressing it. Despite a cut right front hoof that happened at the beginning of the race, per's Ed Zieralski, California Chrome did the best he could. It just wasn't enough.

Espinoza had been in the irons for California Chrome as part of six consecutive wins before the Belmont Stakes. There was plenty of proof to suggest the talented colt was cut out for Triple Crown glory. In part due to injury, though, he fell short.

Part of what makes the Triple Crown so elusive is the tight schedule between the three marquee races. Churchill Downs hosts the opening leg, then the Preakness facilitates the chase for the middle jewel just two weeks later. There is a bit more time until the Belmont Stakes, but its one-and-a-half-mile test is so grueling. An undeniable advantage goes to the horses that don't run in the previous two races.

Whether that brings about any change in stipulations regarding the Triple Crown remains to be seen. The Triple Crown does still have a lure of mystique to it, and it generated a ton of interest when California Chrome was in hot pursuit just a short evening ago. Matt Hegarty of the Daily Racing Form noted how TV ratings received a huge boost this year:

What must be considered moving forward is how this long of a dry spell will benefit horse racing's popularity. If entries are required to run in all three Triple Crown races, the smaller fields of old will likely return. However, scheduling the races a bit further apart would likely maintain the incentive for more runners to compete in the entire Triple Crown season.

California Chrome was as good a candidate to win the Triple Crown as any since Affirmed in 1978. Some could argue the merit of his challengers, but he was as decorated as any of his preceding hopefuls. Unless changes are made, it will take a truly special horse to race into the record books as the 12th Triple Crown champion. If one doesn't come along soon, the Triple Crown could be in danger of becoming an antiquated accolade.