ELMONT, N.Y. — And down the stretch they came, History and the Spoiler, the former on a decades-long losing streak in the Belmont Stakes, the latter unbeaten in the same span and seemingly more invincible with each passing spring. A few minutes before 7 p.m. Saturday evening, they thundered past the grandstands at Belmont Park, where 100,000 strong were on their feet, to see these bitter rivals go at each other one more time with the Triple Crown on the line.
California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion, was valiant in the role of History, but in the end he was no match for the Spoiler, portrayed to perfection on Saturday by Tonalist, who ran the flawless sort of the race, with the same finishing kick, that Chrome had run in Louisville and Baltimore.
And so, once again, there is no Triple Crown winner in horse racing. Affirmed, in 1978, remains the last, and California Chrome, rather than joining the ranks of the immortals, becomes the 13th contender in the ensuing 36 years to be denied in the quest to win the crown on the final leg. California Chrome, an overwhelming 4-5 favorite, never made a significant move to the lead and finished in a dead heat for fourth behind Commissioner and Medal Count.
“I noticed something as soon as he came out of the gate,” said California Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, who also fell short in a bid for the Triple Crown atop War Emblem in 2002. “He was not the same. . . . Turning for home, I was just waiting [for] the same kick he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat.”
In the 36 years since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown, contenders had been done in at Belmont Park by everything from injury to jockey error to the mysterious vagaries of the equine condition. In the wake of California Chrome’s loss, the industry is again facing the question of whether the pace of the Triple Crown races — three races crammed into five weeks — is too much for modern thoroughbreds.
The three horses who beat California Chrome on Saturday — Tonalist, Commissioner and Medal Count — combined to make just one start in either the Derby or Preakness. In fact, only two of California Chrome’s 10 rivals Saturday — Ride On Curlin and General a Rod — had also competed in both the Derby and Preakness. Most trainers these days seek a tactical advantage by resting their horses.
Just moments after Saturday’s race, Steve Coburn, California Chrome’s co-owner, used the platform of an interview on NBC to rip his fellow owners for skipping the other Triple Crown races in order to keep their horses fresh for the Belmont.
“This is a coward’s way out,” he snarled. “If you’ve got a [worthy] horse, run him in all three [races].”
Coburn later suggested California Chrome had injured himself with an inadvertent kick coming out of the gate.
Tonalist, a 9-1 shot coming out of the outside (No. 11) gate, skipped both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and was the least experienced horse in the field, having raced only four times previous to the Belmont. But one of those races was an impressive, four-length win May 10 in the Peter Pan Stakes on the same Belmont track where he prevailed Saturday. His dazzling workouts in the days leading up to this race were the talk of the track.
Tonalist, a strapping bay colt, spent much of the first 14 months of his life at Woodslane Farm in Fauquier County, Va., where owners Rene and Lauren Woolcott bred their mare Settling Mist to the sire Tapit. Tonalist was sold as a yearling to Robert Evans, the owner of Courtland Farm in Easton, Md., who kept Tonalist in Maryland for about a month before sending him to New York-based trainer Cristophe Clement.
On Saturday, jockey Joel Rosario, who had also guided the colt’s win in the Peter Pan Stakes, took Tonalist on a flawless ride, sitting comfortably in third place for much of the race, about a length off pacesetter Commissioner’s lead. He started to close at the homestretch, catching then passing Commissioner to win by a head.
“He’s just kind of a big horse,” Rosario said of Tonalist, “and he has one long stride. He just grinds it, and he keeps on going and going.”
Even Rosario, though, said the victory was bittersweet in that it denied the sport a Triple Crown. California Chrome’s pursuit of history had riveted the industry. His humble origins — born to an $8,000 mare, by a sire with a $2,000 stud fee — turned him into a cult figure and then a superstar following his wins in Louisville and Baltimore. But was he a “one-in-a-bazillion” champion, as co-owner Coburn called him this week? Or another Triple Crown pretender who lacked the stamina, sturdiness or stomach to win for the third time in five weeks against a pack of rivals?
By 9:30 a.m. Saturday — a couple of hours before the day’s first race and nearly 91 / 2 hours before the main event — cars were already lined up on Hempstead Turnpike waiting to turn into the park, and hundreds of people had staked out coveted spots along the rail, near the finish line. By midday, the creaky old grandstands, clubhouses and suites were all packed.
The entrants for the 11th race, the 146th Belmont Stakes, stepped onto the track as Frank Sinatra Jr. was finishing up his rendition of “New York, New York.” The huge crowd roared and buzzed.
Moments later, as the lead pack made the far turn and headed down the stretch, they were all on their feet — the ladies in their Sunday dresses and garish hats, the horsemen in their pearl snaps and boots, the beer-swilling dandies, the touts clutching their racing forms.
They thought they might see History — but the Spoiler has been the better horse in this race for more than three and a half decades, and he was again on this June evening.