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.
|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:
No Triple Crown winner has beaten more than seven horses in the Belmont to win the Triple Crown.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 7, 2014
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:
"If you've got a horse, run him in all three...This is the coward's way out." -California Chrome owner Steve Coburn— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) June 7, 2014
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 UTSanDiego.com's Ed Zieralski, California Chrome did the best he could. It just wasn't enough.
What's most to blame for California Chrome's failed Triple Crown bid?
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:
Belmont S. overnight rating up 36% over last TC bid, 2008, and up 180% over broadcast last year, when no TC on the line.— Matt Hegarty (@DRFHegarty) June 8, 2014
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.