Horse Racing

Tonalist wins Belmont Stakes, California Chrome fails in quest for Triple Crown

History must wait. Yet again.

California Chrome, bidding to become the first thoroughbred in 36 years to claim horse racing’s Triple Crown, stalled down the stretch and finished tied for fourth in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon.

Tonalist, rested after racing in neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness, broke California Chrome’s winning streak with a 2:28.52 lap around the 1 1/2-mile track.

He edged out runner-up Commissioner by a head. Medal Count was third.

California Chrome, who finished in a dead heat with Wicked Strong at the wire, was within striking distance throughout but couldn’t find the extra gear down the stretch. He ended up four lengths off the winner.

And so, the Sport of Kings’ streak of futility continues. There has not been Triple Crown winner since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978. There have now been 13 horses to capture the first two legs but not the third since he did.

But none have lost with as much bluster as California Chrome.

His colorful owner, Steve Coburn, blistered Tonalist’s team on national TV, calling their approach to the race “the coward’s way out.”

Coburn argued that by resting Tonalist for much of the past four months, owner Robert S. Evans gave his horse an unfair advantage over those who ran all three legs.

“These other horses, they always set him out,” Coburn said. “I’ll never see, and I’m 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this. It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day One.”

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Evans declined comment when asked later about Coburn’s tirade but did explain that Tonalist didn’t exactly skip the first two legs. He didn’t qualify for the Derby, in part, because he didn’t have a chance to. Tonalist had to sit out the Wood Memorial, a de facto Derby qualifier, because of a lung infection.

But he did race — and win — four weeks ago, claiming the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at this very racetrack. Yet Saturday was a clear step up in class for the Kentucky-foaled Tonalist, who captured the Crown’s third jewel in just his fifth start.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Tonalist trainer Christophe Clement said. “It’s wonderful.”

Starting on the far end, Tonalist broke well and was in the middle of the 11-horse field at the quarter-mile mark. He stalked Commissioner, who led throughout, for a mile and a quarter, only to catch and pass him in the last jump.

“[Tonalist is] just kind of a big horse, and he has one long stride, and he just grinds it, and keeps on going and going,” jockey Joel Rosario said.

California Chrome, meanwhile, faltered where he usually thrives. Perhaps it was the length of the race. Maybe it was the accumulative effect of the past month.

But for whatever reason, as he approached the final quarter-pole, California Chrome went four-wide, but had no motor.

“A little tired,” jockey Victor Espinoza said. “Turning for home, I was just waiting to have that same kick like he always had before, and [Saturday] he was a little bit flat down the lane.”

And in turn, he left a capacity crowd deflated.

Interest in Chrome’s historic run cut across race and class. The Belmont paddock was a snapshot of America, as people from most every background lined up 10 deep to grab a quick glance at their new favorite horse. Women in designer dresses (and garish hats) rubbed elbows with men in sleeveless T-shirts.

His run renewed interest in the sport on a national scale.

Bettors put more than $10 million on Chrome to win; the overall pot exceeded $70 million. And even his competition was a bit disappointed that he didn’t finish the job.

“I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome,” Rosario said. “If I was going to get beat, I wanted to get beat by him.”

Said Coburn: “I thought he was gaining ground, but he didn’t have it in him.”

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