NEW YORK – On fresh legs and a familiar track, Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes Saturday to spoil California Chrome's bid for the first Triple Crown in Thoroughbred racing in 36 years.
The outcome crushed the hopes of California Chrome fans clad in purple, green and nasal strips – and immediately fueled debate about whether the timetable of the Triple Crown series needs fixing.
California Chrome sustained a bloody gash that may have hurt his chances in the race. Photos taken while the horse was walking back to the barn after the race show the injured hoof.
Trainer Art Sherman said California Chrome might have hurt himself coming out of the gate by kicking his right front leg with his right rear leg. The colt's camp says the injury is not serious.
The 4-5 favorite had won six in a row, most recently the May 3 Kentucky Derby and the May 17 Preakness. In his third race in five weeks with jockey Victor Espinoza in the saddle, he finished the Belmont in a dead heat for fourth place with Wicked Strong. California Chrome had previously been accustomed to a month off between races.
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman said the California-bred colt gave his all.
"It's a long, hard ride on these young horses, and that's why the Triple Crown is so tough to win," said Sherman. " … The horse tried. That's all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life. I'll always have that in my heart for that horse."
Espinoza, asked when the Triple Crown drought might end, said, "I'm sure one of these days. … Sooner or later, we need to break this bad karma."
Tonalist, ridden by jockey Joel Rosario, did not run in the Derby or Preakness. His most recent race was a win here at Belmont Park in the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes.
Running from the outside post in an 11-horse field, Tonalist, who went off at 9-1, won by a head over over runner-up Commissioner, who also did not run in the Derby or Preakness and was second in the Peter Pan. Medal Count, eighth in the Derby and absent from the Preakness, took third by a length.
Winning jockey Joel Rosario said it was bittersweet to be the spoiler. "I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," he said. "If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him."
''(He) is just kind of a big horse, and he has long strides," said Rosario. "And he just grinds it and keeps on going and going, keeps on coming, and he got the job done today."
Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome, had been critical before the race of horses who sat out the earlier Triple Crown races and entered the Belmont to "upset the apple cart." He continued that immediately after Saturday's finish.
"This was the coward's way out," said Coburn.
"I thought he (California Chrome) was gaining ground, but he didn't have anything apparently. He's been in three big races. These other horses set one out (or both) and it's not fair for the horses who are in it from Day 1.
"It's all or nothing. It's not fair to these horses that are running their guts out. This is a cowards' way out. If you've got a horse that earns points that run in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run in all three races."
Robert Evans, owner of the winner Tonalist, declined to comment on Coburn's post-race remarks. He said spreading the races out over more time might have merit to help spotlight the Triple Crown series.
"I actually think it would be better to spread it out a little bit," said Evans. "It's better for the horses, and it would be better to promote it … and a lot more time to create interest.
"Racing has a problem in that it doesn't believe in marketing or selling itself, and it should do more of that. But the time wouldn't do any good if racing didn't promote itself."
Evans is chairman of Crane Co., an industrial manufacturing firm based in Stamford, Conn and Huttig Building Production of St. Louis.
"I've been in this game a long time. I told somebody this morning that I've been in it 50 years. I can't wait another 50 years to win a race like this."
Winning trainer Christophe Clement, a native of France, initially had doubts about the tight finish with Commissioner.
"I wasn't sure he won," said Clement. "We actually thought he finished second. But we got lucky. He won. It was great."
Clement saluted Evans, the owner. "It's a great win for the team, for the staff, for the owner, Mr. Evans, who believed in us. I'm absolutely thrilled," he said.
The Belmont is the longest of the three Triple Crown Races at a mile and a half, and it comes at the end of the five-week grind for horses such as California Chrome who run in all three.
"It's tough for California Chrome to come back in three weeks and a mile and a half," said Espinoza. "This race is just tough. … (The) other horses (were) fresh. It's just not easy.''
Espinoza, who also came up short here in 2002 with a Triple Crown try aboard War Emblem, said it was a "nice ride" while it lasted.
"California Chrome, he was just a little bit empty today."
California Chrome was fifth heading into the stretch.
"Turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before," said Espinoza. "And today he was a little bit flat down the lane."
Going into the race, it was announced by the Empire State Building that it would light up its tower in purple and green – the colors of California Chrome's jockey silks – if he won the Triple Crown. But it didn't happen.
Horse racing hasn't had a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. California Chrome became the 13th horses since then to win the Derby and the Preakness and fail in the Belmont.
Maryland officials would like to have the Derby the first Saturday in May, the Preakness the first Saturday in June and the Belmont the first Saturday in July. One argument for extending the span of the series to two months is that it would take away the advantage for better rested horses in the Belmont.
"I'll never see, and I'm 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this," said Coburn. "It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one."
Wicked Strong, who tied for fourth with California Chrome, ran in the Derby but not the Preakness.
Commissioner had the lead from the first turn to the stretch.
"He ran super," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "I didn't anticipate that we would be on the lead, but we weren't going to take away anything they gave us. He was almost good enough today."
In addition to California Chrome, the only other Belmont horses who ran in all three races were Ride On Curlin (seventh in the Derby and second in the Preakness) and General a Rod (11th in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness).
In the Belmont, Ride On Curlin was 11th and last and General a Rod was seventh.
Dale Romans, trainer of third-place Medal Count, said he appreciated the big crowd at Belmont Park, which totaled 102,199, the third largest in Belmont history,. The record of 120,139 was set in 2004, when Birdstone beat Triple Crown contender Smarty Jones.The on-track betting handle of $19.1 million and the handle from all sources was $150.2 million. Both were New York Racing Association records.
"It's about being around greatness, and California Chrome is greatness," said Romans. "He couldn't get it done today like the last 12 that tried. But he's greatness. And it proves people here still appreciate the greatness of this game."
California Chrome again wore an equine nasal strip, designed to keep the nasal passages of a horse open during exertion. Priot to this Belmont, New York racing officials had banned the strips. But that was lifted after California Chrome's handlers requested that he be allowed to wear the strip. New York officials said they did not make a horse run faster and were no risk to health and safety.
In lifting its ban, it also noted that some studies have shown the strips might reduce bleeding of the lungs associated with high exertion by horses and help them recover after races.
Removable tattoos, green and purple and simulating nasal strips, were sold for two for $5 at the track. Many fans sported them.
Espinoza, the jockey, wore a nasal strip labeled with "MGM Grand" – a Las Vegas casino.
But Tonalist, who prior to winning the Peter Pan on May 10 had not raced since finishing second Feb. 22 at Gulfstream Park in Florida, had a say in the outcome.