Instead of a historic win by their favorite, the huge crowd at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, witnessed a dramatic finish in which Tonalist, ridden by Joel Rosario, overtook Commissioner in his last strides to win by a head.
But the fact that none of the top three finishers had raced in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the two prerequisites to the Triple Crown, didn’t sit well with California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn.
Coburn angrily told NBC Sports that the horse owners that had skipped either race before running the Belmont took “the coward’s way out.”
Neither Tonalist nor Commissioner ran in the Derby or Preakness. Medal Count, the third-place finisher, didn’t run in the Preakness.
California Chrome appeared sluggish and finished in a dead heat for fourth with Wicked Strong in his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. In the 135 years the grueling series of races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds have all been contested, only 11 horses have won all three.
A visibly upset Coburn said his horse “didn’t have it in him.”
“I’ll never see, and I’m 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this,” he said. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day One. If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you [shouldn't] run in the other two races. … It’s all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion.”
Tonalist owner Robert Evans declined to comment on Coburn’s remarks.
Tonalist covered the mile and a half in 2:28.52 and returned $20.40 to win on a $2 bet.
California Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza described his horse moments after the race as “a little tired.”
“Turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat down the lane,” Espinoza said. “I think it was tough for him. He ran back-to-back races in different tracks — and all those fresh horses.”
Rosario called his victory bittersweet.
“I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome,” he told NBC Sports. “If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him.”
Belmont Park has been especially unkind to Triple Crown contenders in recent years. 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.
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.
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,” Christopher Kay, CEO of the New York Racing Association, said prior to the race, “I think it will bring a whole new generation of fans to this great sport.”
It wasn’t to be.
Matt Majendie and CNN’s Richard Roth and Laura Dolan contributed to this report.