ELMONT, N.Y. — During yet another disappointing sunset at Belmont Park after a 12th straight failed run for the Triple Crown in 36 years, the same old things happened. Fans sat disappointed in the grandstand, sobering up. Many waited in long lines at the train station just outside the track entrance. Others shuffled to their cars. The ground was littered with programs and posters with the phrase, “Triple Chrome.”
Back at the barn of the beaten favorite, California Chrome, they licked their wounds. In this case, it was literal. A spokesman for the team said the colt “grabbed a quarter,” or cut his right front hoof, at some point during the race. She said trainers would talk more about the injury today.
For now, they were smarting, after Tonalist, a well-rested colt who had last run in a Peter Pan Stakes victory on May 10, roared to the lead in the stretch to win by a head over Commissioner, another “new shooter” in the Belmont, who didn’t race in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. Tonalist paid $20.40 to win, the ninth time in the last 15 races the Belmont winner has paid more than $10.
Medal Count, who was eighth in the Kentucky Derby, finished third, and California Chrome finished in a dead-heat for fourth, tied with Wicked Strong.
“I feel like he was a little bit empty today,” said California Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza, who said he could tell he didn’t have enough horse after about five furlongs. “It’s not like before. He got a little bit intimidated. He’s never done that before. That’s the first time, I noticed that he got just a little bit shy in there.”
Fans came in droves, with the Long Island freeways backed up in all directions and the special Long Island Railroad Train packed for the trip directly into Belmont Park. They snapped up posters of California Chrome, wore special nasal strips that were being given out — promoting the equine version that the colt wears — and placed souvenir $2 win bets by the thousands.
California Chrome stumbled out at the start, brushing with Matterhorn, and it was there that a spokesman said he might’ve clipped his own hoof or hit the hoof of a competitor. Still, according to the Equibase official race recap, he “showed no ill effects.” He got to a good stalking position just off the leaders and there he stayed well until the turn for home, when Espinoza asked him for his trademark burst, but didn’t get it.
“You know, the horse tried hard,” assistant trainer Alan Sherman said. “It’s a long, hard ride on these young horses and that’s why the Triple Crown is so tough to win. It’s just, you know, the horse tried, that’s all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life. I thought he was in pretty good shape. I saw when Victor started to squeeze on him a little, he didn’t respond like he had in the past. Just, he was a little wore out, I think.”
Tonalist wasn’t. A lung infection knocked him off the Triple Crown trail, but trainer Christophe Clement was patient and knew he had a chance in the Belmont. Clement, who grew up in France, scored his biggest American victory.
“It’s a great win,” he said. “He trained great. He looked great before the race. I’m absolutely delighted that he won.”
Others weren’t as delighted. Co-owner of California Chrome Steve Coburn blasted Clement, without mentioning him by name, and other owners who came to the Belmont having skipped the Preakness or, in the case of the winner, skipped the Kentucky Derby and Preakness altogether.
“The other horses, they sat out and try to upset the apple cart,” Coburn told NBC Sports. “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. If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby you can’t run the other two races. It’s all or nothing. It’s all or nothing because it’s not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out of these people and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion. This is a coward’s way out. ... Our horse had a target on his back.”
Coburn perhaps had a point. A horse who hasn’t run in either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown has won the Belmont five times in eight years. But Coburn made his point at the wrong time, and perhaps in the wrong tone — out of his frustration.
Dale Romans, whose Medal Count finished third, said he doesn’t see it as a tragedy if the Triple Crown isn’t attained.
“It’s not heartbreaking, because if a horse doesn’t do it, they didn’t deserve it,” Romans said. “A Triple Crown winner is saved for just special, special horses. And if they’re not special, they shouldn’t have the Triple Crown on their record. Now, this is a great horse. There’s no way anyone can call him a failure. He’s had a great run from the Santa Anita Derby on. We had a great day of racing, and we’ll try it again next year.”
Billy Gowan, who trained Ride On Curlin, one of only three horses to run all three legs of the Triple Crown, said he came away with more respect for California Chrome.
“I’ve seen horses [grab a quarter] and not run as hard as he did,” Gowan said. “It’s really painful. You see him, sitting there bleeding. It’s like ripping your fingernail or toenail. You’re tearing flesh and getting into the meat, so it’s bound to be painful. It shows you how much that horse has. I’ve seen horses pull up. He’s a pretty courageous horse to finish fourth, I think.”
The California Chrome team arrived back at the barn one by one, in a somber mood, some time after the Belmont. The only one who spoke at the barn was the colt’s exercise rider, Willie Delgado.
“He’s still my hero,” said Delgado, who wouldn’t speak to the colt’s health, saying, “I’ll leave that to my boss.”
Delgado was emotional. He shied away from the cameras and backed away from the fence.
“To me, he’s still my hero,” Delgado said. “It was a good race. The best horse at the time won, but he’s still my hero.”
At the barn’s entrance, an attendant pushed shut the door, and the show was over. Another year, another disappointing sunset at Belmont.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Louisville TV station WDRB. Eric Crawford writes for WDRB.