BELMONT, N.Y. -- From the moment California Chrome left the starting gate at Belmont Park on Saturday, Victor Espinoza felt something amiss.
"He was not the same," the veteran jockey said.
In the last five weeks, the chestnut colt with a white blaze on his nose made the improbable routine. Bred for only $10,000 in a sport awash in millions and given a name drawn from a hat, he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
The ending to California Chrome's unlikely journey to the Belmont Stakes and the cusp of the Triple Crown seemed almost preordained. If a horse with such humble origins could win the first two legs, why not the final one to end the 36-year search for another Triple Crown winner and thrust the fading sport back into the national consciousness? California Chrome looked to be the horse to do it.
But 21/2 minutes after Espinoza's ominous start, a familiar silence descended on Belmont Park. The "Triple Chrome" signs disappeared. The 11/2- mile course at the Belmont Stakes had swallowed another favorite.
"You know, the horse tried hard," said Alan Sherman, the assistant trainer for his 77-year-old father, Art. "It's a long, hard ride on these young horses and that's why the Triple Crown is so difficult to win. ... He took me on the ride of my life."
Instead, Tonalist, who didn't compete in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes, held off Commissioner at the finish to win by a head. Medal Count finished third, and California Chrome and Wicked Strong tied for fourth.
Carrying 8-1 odds, Tonalist paid $20.40, $9.60 and $7. Commissioner paid $23.20 and $3.20 and Medal Count paid $13.20.
The result left a bittersweet feeling at Belmont Park, even to the victorious jockey.
"I'm a little bit upset by California Chrome," Joel Rosario said. "If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him."
Disappointment of every variety has followed the 13 horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed completed the job in 1978. I'll Have Another scratched the day before the Belmont, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and, Saturday, California Chrome couldn't muster a serious challenge.
Espinoza understands the dismay better than most. He rode War Emblem to wins in the first two legs in 2002 before an eighth-place finish at the Belmont, the longest course of the Triple Crown. Once again, there's no clear answer for how to conquer the final, most difficult test.
"This race is just tough," Espinoza said.
Those words were gentler than those of Steve Coburn, who co-owns the colt with Perry Martin. Coburn assailed Tonalist for not competing in the Triple Crown's first two legs. Instead of facing fresh horses in the Belmont, Coburn believes only those who start the Kentucky Derby should be eligible for the Belmont.
"This is a coward's way out, in my opinion," Coburn said. "This is a coward's way out."
Tonalist owner Robert Evans declined comment on Coburn's outburst.
"I've been where Steve Coburn's been and it's not fun when you don't win," Evans said.
Coburn, though, wasn't alone in his frustration.
In the hours before the race, you couldn't escape California Chrome if you tried. Inside the grandstand that smelled of hot dogs and spilled beer, spectators -- 102,199 at final count -- packed shoulder to shoulder and toted free posters of the horse. Two men wearing sport coats covered in silver sequins with "Cali Chrome" written on the back strutted through the crowd. There were chrome-covered hats and sunglasses. And purple, lots of purple, to echo California Chrome's primary racing color: T-shirts and starched dress shirts and dresses and ties and polos.
Others wore nasal strips, some purple, of course, to echo the horse-sized breathing aid worn by their favored colt. Never mind the day's high fashion, where straw boaters and bow ties and seersucker were more common than jeans and a trophy was presented to the "most elegant woman."
When Coburn, wearing a purple shirt and green tie, entered, the crowd started chanting the colt's name. They roared when California Chrome finally emerged into the sunlight covering the track.
The pent-up anticipation quickly faded.
At the start, the horse didn't seem to be the same to Espinoza. So, the jockey waited longer to try and take the lead. Starting on the inside, Espinoza worked the colt to the outside entering the stretch, but the speed that California Chrome used in previous weeks never materialized. The roar from the grandstand down the stretch sounded more like a plea. They wanted history from the 4-5 favorite, but could see it slipping away with each stride.
After the race Alan Sherman said they discovered a gash on California Chrome's right front hoof but didn't think it was serious nor did they use it as an excuse.
At one point in the race, Espinoza said, California Chrome seemed to be intimidated by the situation. The unflappable colt who brought a six-race winning streak into Saturday seemed absent.
"He was just a little wore out, I think," Sherman said.
The crowd quickly departed after the race, novelty-sized hats and all. They left behind a sea of discarded betting slips strewn through the grandstand along with the hopes that they could be part of something bigger than themselves. They left with shocked silence 36 years in the making.
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