California Chrome another sad story of broken Triple Crown dreams

ELMONT, N.Y. - History finished in a dead-heat for fourth place on Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park. Glory came up short in the final stretch run. Immortality will have to wait for another year.

California Chrome would have gathered all those accolades with a win in the Belmont Stakes to secure horse racing's first Triple Crown since 1978, but instead the strong chestnut colt joins the growing list of horses who could get only two-thirds of the way to the wire.

If not this horse, which was dominant in winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, then what will it take for another horse to break the streak? Well, a better horse, or a more inferior set of rivals, or a change in the brutal Triple Crown schedule. Any of those three factors could do it, but something will have to change.

Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I'll Have Another, and now California Chrome. Some were very good horses, some were great - great enough to double up on the Derby and the Preakness - but none of them Triple Crown winners.

"I was just waiting to have that same kick like he always had before," Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza said. "When I moved out, he just didn't have that today."

The others had their sad stories as well. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin in his stall. Real Quiet lost by a nose. Smarty Jones got burned by a fast pace in the middle of the race. And on and on. California Chrome's sad story is that it just wasn't his day.

It could have been the toll of running three distance races in the sapping span of five weeks. General a Rod and Ride On Curlin were the only other horses to take on all three of the Triple Crown races this season. General a Rod finished seventh, and Ride on Curlin was eased in the stretch and finished last. Tonalist and Commissioner, which ran 1-2 in the Belmont, finished in the same order in the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes and hadn't raced since.

The disappointment led Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn to cry foul on the whole deal. He blamed the other horses for ganging up on his horse, which absolutely did not happen as the race itself played out. He blamed the system that allows horses to sit out the earlier races and then play spoiler in the Belmont. Unless horse racing wants to see the Belmont Stakes run with three horses every year, that isn't going to change.

"If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races. It's all or nothing," Coburn said. "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. That's a coward's way out."

Well, OK, but it's also the system that's been in place since the Triple Crown races settled into their current schedule more than 80 years ago. No one changed it just to get California Chrome, no matter how many folks are disappointed by an outcome that messed up a nice story about a modestly bred colt owned by a couple of funny guys and trained by a 77-year-old based at a converted quarter-horse track.

Tonalist brought a pretty good story to the track, too. He was sick with a lung infection earlier this year; couldn't compete in a major Derby prep race; and, as a result, didn't have enough points to qualify for Louisville. He ran and won the Peter Pan instead and then pointed toward the Belmont.

Owner Robert Evans is the son of Thomas Evans, who owned Pleasant Colony, which won the Derby and Preakness in 1981. Tonalist's dam, Settling Mist, was sired by Pleasant Colony, so Robert Evans was able - 33 years later - to complete the family Triple Crown on Saturday.

"I was here at the Belmont in 1981, so I've been where Steve Coburn is, and it isn't fun," Evans said. "I went to my father's grave yesterday and thanked him for putting me in the position to be doing this."

The horse - which won the Belmont in just its fifth career start - should get some thanks, too. Tonalist stalked the pace after the first quarter-mile, swung wide on the final turn, and passed a fading General a Rod and Commissioner on the way to the win. California Chrome was in just as good a position, but couldn't take advantage.

"You know, the horse tried hard," said assistant trainer Alan Sherman. "It's a long, hard ride on these young horses, and that's why the Triple Crown is so tough to win."

Apparently. The list just keeps getting longer. Soon it will be a mile and one-half.