ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — Here it is, another disappointing sunset at Belmont Park.
After a twelfth straight failed Triple Crown bid since 1978, fans sit disappointed in the grandstand, sobering up. Some trudge to the train station just outside the track entrance. Others shuffle to their cars. On the ground, hundreds of purple posters carpet the clubhouse, the phrase “Triple Chrome” shouting up from the grimy ground.
And back at the barn of the beaten favorite, California Chrome, they lick their wounds. In this case, it is literal. A spokesperson for the team says the colt “grabbed a quarter,” or cut his right front hoof, at some point during the race.
But for the moment, they were smarting. Tonalist, a well-rested colt who last had 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 past 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, 102,199 of them, the third largest ever for the Belmont, 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 spokesperson 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 live 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 now 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.
Otherwise, he made the most of his final Triple Crown moments. He shook hands and posed for pictures and took a moment to shout his thanks to the crowd after the race from his seat in the clubhouse. He’s crass and coarse, but give him a break. It’d be disingenuous for me to knock a guy for speaking his mind. Those guys make the best copy. He didn’t hide behind code words. He says what he means. I’d rather have seen a little more class from the entire group. I’d rather them have taken a deep breath and been a little more accessible after the race, talked a little more. But you can’t say they haven’t done their bit. They’ve given incredible access for a month. Give them that.
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. First Alan Sherman, then Art, and the horse himself. 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 held a Coors Light in his hand. 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.