NEW YORK — Tonalist won the 146th Belmont Stakes Saturday, denying the favored California Chrome the elusive Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing.
On a warm and sunny Saturday in Elmont, New York, spectators shouted “Go, Chrome, Go” before the race, but California Chrome appeared sluggish and finished in a dead heat for fourth with Wicked Strong in his bid to become the first horse in 36 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. In the 134 years the grueling series of races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds have all been contested, only 11 horses have won all three.
Tonalist, winner of the Peter Pan Stakes last month at Belmont Park, fought off Commissioner for the win. Medal Count was third.
Jockey Joel Rosario said the victory was bittersweet.
“If I wanted to get beat, [I] wanted it to be by California Chrome,” Rosario said.
Belmont Park has been especially unkind in the years since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978. A dozen horses have won the first two legs without pulling off the feat. Most recently, Big Brown, a prohibitive favorite in 2008, failed to finish the Belmont, and in 2012 I’ll Have Another failed to start, scratched due to an injury.
“A little tired,” was how California Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza described his horse moments after the race on NBC Sports. “When I turned in for home I was waiting for him to have the same kick as he always had before and today he was flat on the length. I think it was tough for him, running those back-to-back races and different tracks with all these fresh horses.”
An angry Steve Colburn, California Chrome owner, said his horse “didn’t have it in him.”
“I’ll never see in my lifetime,” he said. “I’ll never see another Triple Crown race. If you can’t make enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby, you can’t race in the other two races. This isn’t fair to the other horses. This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion. Our horse had a target on his back. If you got a horse, run him in all three races.”
California Chrome was the favorite on the mile-and-a-half Belmont Park Race Track before a crowd of 100,000. But the daunting Triple Crown challenge squeezes three races into a five-week period, in an era when thoroughbreds normally run no more than once a month.
Adding to the rigor is the course itself: Belmont is a quarter-mile longer than Churchill Downs, home of the Derby, and five-sixteenths longer than Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness is run.
California Chrome started in the second post position — the same gate that Secretariat shot out from in 1973 on track to Triple Crown glory and racing immortality.
After the Preakness, New York racing officials decided to allow California Chrome to wear a breathing strip at Belmont Park.
The manufacturer of the strip has said it allows horses to breathe more freely and reduces the risk of bleeding in the lungs during heavy exertion. California Chrome has worn the strips during his last six wins.
“That nose strip really doesn’t mean a thing,” Goldberg said. “It helps people breathe a little easier. It helps people who have sleep disorders sleep better. It won’t affect him in the slightest.”
Tonalist was among the horses considered to be California Chrome’s biggest threats, along with Ride on Curlin and Commanding Curve.
The Belmont Stakes prize is about $800,000 to the winner, but in the view of some in the thoroughbred racing community, there was much, much more riding on the outcome. The beleaguered racing industry, battered for decades by gambling competition and changing entertainment tastes, stood to benefit from a Triple Crown.
“If California Chrome wins,” said Christopher Kay, CEO of the New York Racing Association, “I think it will bring a whole new generation of fans to this great sport.”
It wasn’t to be.