By Leif Skodnick
ELMONT, N.Y. – The 146th running of the Belmont Stakes began with thunderous cheers from a record and ended in resigned sighs, as Tonalist denied California Chrome’s bid to complete horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Owned by the Dumbass Partners syndicate, California Chrome went off a heavy favorite at 4-5 but never challenged the lead after the first half mile. For the 13th time since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, a horse that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes failed to win the Belmont Stakes.
The closest a horse came in the last 36 years to winning all three legs came in 2004, when Smarty Jones, the tenth horse since Affirmed to win the Derby and the Preakness, lost his lead down the stretch. The racing world’s desire to see a Triple Crown winner was heavy in track announcer Tom Durkin’s voice, and Smarty Jones was ahead by a length as Durkin called “it’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong away!”
But Birdstone surged past Smarty Jones in the final few yards. Neither Big Brown (did not finish in 2008) nor I’ll Have Another (scratched due to injury) came close to accomplishing the feat.
After a clean break from the gate, California Chrome was held back from the lead early, running second and letting Commissioner lead the field through the first quarter-mile in 24 seconds flat.
Passing the one-mile pole, Espinoza held California Chrome, who slid to fourth. The odds-on favorite shuffled between fourth and fifth as the field ran the backstretch.
As the field turned for home, California Chrome was running four-wide to the outside, with Medal Count and Tonalist close behind the leading Commissioner on the rail.
“When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn’t respond,” said Alan Sherman, California Chrome’s assistant trainer. “He was wore out, I think. Victor seemed to think he handled the surface fine, and he seemed to come back fine. We’ll know more when we get back to the barn.”
In the final yards, Tonalist and Commissioner kicked ahead, with Tonalist emerging the winner by a head.
“I wasn’t sure he won. We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won. It was great,” said Christophe Clement, trainer for Tonalist.
“[Tonalist is] just kind of a big horse, and he has one long stride, and he just grind it, and keeps on going and going, keeps on coming, and he got the job done today,” said Joel Rosario, who was aboard the winner.
Rosario kept Tonalist, who did not run in the Derby or the Preakness, on the grinding pace, which saw the first five quarter-mile fractions clocked in just over 24 seconds.
Despite never running full out, California Chrome had nothing left to give when jockey Victor Espinoza asked him to move. With three-eighths of a mile to go, Tonalist and Commissioner battled along the rail all the way to the wire. Medal Count ran third, while California Chrome and Wicked Strong finished in a dead heat for fourth.
“I thought he was… 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,” said Espinoza, who has two wins in 71 career starts at Belmont Park. “I had a chance to move out, and when I moved out he just don’t have that today.”
After the race, California Chrome’s owners felt that the field ganged up on the California-bred colt.
“Our horse had a target on his back,” said Steve Coburn, part of California Chrome’s ownership group. Coburn took exception to his California Chrome being denied the Triple Crown by a horse that didn’t run in the first two legs. “Everybody else lays out one and they won’t run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness; they’ll wait until the Belmont. If you’ve got a horse, run him in all three. Those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. This is a coward’s way out.”
Rosario, who was aboard Tonalist, was torn about his victory. “I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him,” he said.
Clement, the winning trainer, wasn’t upset at all. “I’ll find a way to sleep at night for breaking up the Triple Crown.”