ELMONT, N.Y. -- Heartbreak, a bleeding hoof and anger met at the finish line where a storybook ending was expected.
There's a reason Triple Crowns are so rare in horse racing. Several of them, actually.
A few of them finally proved to be the obstacles that California Chrome could not overcome in his attempt to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
The Los Alamitos, Calif.-trained dream 3-year-old finished Saturday's Belmont Stakes in a dead heat for fourth place after he suffered an injury to his right front hoof and couldn't match a field of fresh competitors in his third race in five weeks.
"I'm 61 years old and I'll never see another Triple Crown winner because of how they do this," California Chrome's co-owner Steve Coburn said.
Coburn then lashed out at fellow owners who skip either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes -- or both -- to enter the 1 1/2-mile Belmont with a rested horse.
His horse, of course, won the Derby on May 3 and the Preakness on May 17; Belmont winner Tonalist missed both after suffering a lung infection early in the year. Of the three horses to beat California Chrome, only third-place finisher Medal Count ran in one of the Triple Crown races (the Kentucky Derby before he skipped the Preakness).
"This is the coward's way out," Coburn said.
Horse racing's Triple Crown is among the toughest feats in sports to accomplish because it requires horses to deliver excellence three times in five weeks in three states.
Only 11 horses have won all three races, and none in 36 years. California Chrome became the 13th horse since Affirmed to win the first two legs but fail to win the Belmont.
It was not clear when he returned to Barn 26 on Saturday if he simply was spent or if he was hampered too severely by his injury.
"It's a long hard ride on these young horses, and that's why the Triple Crown is so tough to win," assistant trainer Alan Sherman said. "You know, the horse tried. That's all I can ask for.
"He took me on the ride of my life. I'll always have that in my heart for that horse."
Sherman's father, Art, said that California Chrome "grabbed a quarter," or had his right front hoof clipped by either by his back hoof or another horse.
California Chrome's hoof was bleeding lightly when he got back to the barn and he was going to be examined by a veterinarian.
Rival trainer Billy Gowan, whose Ride On Curlin did not finish the Belmont, compared the injury to a human ripping off a fingernail and said it is extremely painful for a horse.
Many horses, he said, will pull up and not finish the race.
"He's a pretty courageous horse to finish fourth," Gowan said.
California Chrome's exercise rider, William Delgado, said the injury is a freak occurrence that is akin to stepping on a rock -- "It happens," he said.
"All I know is he's still my hero," Delgado said.
Omnipresent purple and green in the crowd of 102,199 at Belmont Park showed California Chrome had captured the imagination of both racing diehards and casual fans who were captivated by his story.
And why not?
The lore of an $8,000 mare being bred to a sire who commanded only a $2,500 stud fee and producing a champion horse worth millions is incredibly endearing.
Excitement around California Chrome grew with each successive victory, from the King Glorious Stakes in late December on the final day of racing at Hollywood Park to the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.
Even the surviving owners, trainers and jockeys of the past three Triple Crown winners enthusiastically supported California Chrome and said they wanted him to join their elite club.
California Chrome's exercise rider, William Delgado, heard from a friend Friday that Penny Chenery, the owner of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, wanted to meet him at a party.
"She asked me if I was nervous, and I told her I was," said Delgado, who has an apartment he hasn't had a chance to move into since he has been on the road with California Chrome since late April. "She said, 'Don't be. You've done everything you can do. Now it's up to him and God.' "
While Chenery put Delgado at ease, she also made him make a tough decision.
She wanted a purple California Chrome cap. More specifically, she wanted the cap Delgado was wearing. He hesitated at first because he had worn it at the Derby and Preakness, but she asked him to sign it and give it to her.
"She said, 'Then I'll have it during the Belmont,' " he said. "What was I going to do? She's royalty."
Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin had a chance to join the likes of Chenery and Affirmed's owner, Patrice Wolfson, among the ranks of Triple Crown owners. And before the race, Coburn ate up his role as a favorite man of the people, delighting fans during the early races by shaking hands, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
One fan who sported a California Chrome cap with Coburn's signature had dinner with him on the eve of the Belmont.
John Young is a fellow California horse owner who has a horse born at the same Coalinga farm around the time as California Chrome in February 2011.
"This means everything to us," Young said. "He's such a good horse and everyone around him is great."
Coburn's shoot-from-the-lip approach endeared him to a racing public tired of canned answers from millionaire owners who dabble in the sport.
Fans loved it when his response to a $6 million offer to buy California Chrome before the Kentucky Derby was met with a resounding "hell no," and he boldly predicted his horse would win the Triple Crown.
His response to losing Saturday, however, bothered his wife, Carolyn, who tried to get him to stop during a live television interview and told him on the way to their ride away from the track that he was "being a sore loser."
"No, I'm just telling it like it is," he said.
The reality, however, is that the fresh field California Chrome faced is nothing new. With a winner's share of $670,000 available in the Belmont, owners and trainers regularly employ the strategy of saving their horses for the grueling race.
Christophe Clement, the trainer of Belmont winner Tonalist, refused to comment about Coburn's rant. His jockey, however, conceded that it was a little tough to watch yet another Triple Crown hopeful fall by the wayside.
"I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," jockey Joel Rosario said after his horse won in 2:28.52. "If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him. Yes, it's bittersweet."
California Chrome's jockey, Victor Espinoza, entered Saturday 6-0 on the second Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner of his career. Espinoza's bid to win the 2002 Triple Crown was thwarted when War Emblem stumbled at the start of the Belmont. This time, he said he thought his horse lacked the extra gear that had made him unbeatable.
"Regardless of what happened today, I believe he's one of the best horses I ever rode in my career," said Espinoza, who kept California Chrome close to the leaders for much of the race but could not get him to respond when needed. "I have had a tremendous ride with him.
"We almost reached top. Just one step away to get to the top."
The difficulty of that final step, of course, is what makes the Triple Crown so cherished. It once seemed commonplace, with three winners in the '70s, but it's often forgotten that Secretariat's triumph in 1973 was the first since Citation in 1948.
Even though California Chrome was the overwhelming betting favorite, anyone who pays attention to horse racing knows the only sure thing is that the sport breaks hearts more often than it fulfills dreams. Still, the dreamers keep showing up, sometimes just to witness an attempt to make history.
"It's about being around greatness, and California Chrome is greatness," said Dale Romans, who trained third-place finisher Medal Count. "He couldn't get it done today like the last 12 who tried, but he's greatness."
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