In the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome’s pursuit of the Triple Crown was depicted as a fairy tale. Two down-to-earth owners had struck it rich. Jockey Victor Espinoza had delivered flawless performances on the colt, with whom he had a wonderful affinity. And the horse himself became almost larger than life — a budding superstar who might resuscitate the whole sport.
But after California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth place behind the victorious Tonalist, the result did not merely deflate the 102,199 spectators at Belmont Park and the millions watching on television. The loss spoiled the fairy tale.
Minutes after his colt had crossed the finish line, co-owner Steve Coburn ranted on national television that winning the Belmont with a rested, fresh horse such as Tonalist was “the coward’s way out.” He later declared that his rivals were “a bunch of damned cheaters.”
He was universally denounced as a graceless and clueless bad sport. While there was unanimity of opinion about Coburn, another post-race issue provoked spirited debate: Did Espinoza bear a heavy load of responsibility for California Chrome’s defeat?
Coburn has been an engaging character in the California Chrome saga because he speaks his mind, but he spoke far too much Saturday. He thought it was unfair that his colt had to go through the Triple Crown grind while Tonalist and second-place Commissioner hadn’t run in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. He said the 20 horses who qualify to run in the Derby under Churchill Downs’s point system should be the only ones allowed to compete in the remainder of the Triple Crown.
No such idea has occurred to anybody else in the history of horse racing. Owners and trainers often choose to make the Belmont their objective, and why should the New York Racing Association bar those horses from its $1.5 million race? It was a rich irony that Tonalist is owned by Robert Evans, the son of Thomas Mellon Evans, whose colt Pleasant Colony won the Derby and Preakness in 1981. His bid to win the Triple Crown was foiled in the Belmont by a fresh horse, Summing. Such new challengers make the Triple Crown series more interesting and add to its difficulty. Everybody in the sport understands this is part of the game — except Coburn.
The Coburn contretemps soon will be forgotten, but Espinoza may take a lasting place (along with Ron Franklin, Stewart Elliott and Kent Desormeaux) on the list of riders blamed for losing the Triple Crown with an ill-judged ride in the Belmont.
Espinoza was guilty of a gross tactical error Saturday.
California Chrome broke from post position No. 2 in a field with little speed. As he reached the first turn, one rival was pressing him from the outside — Commissioner, a colt who had never displayed early speed in his life.
His presence near the lead surely told Espinoza that the pace was slow, which it was — a quarter mile in 24.06 seconds. California Chrome was not going to burn himself if he tried to lead the Belmont from start to finish — as the last four Triple Crown winners did.
But Espinoza put his mount under restraint, ceding the lead to Commissioner — a decision that immediately worked to California Chrome’s detriment.
Commissioner shot to the lead on the rail. (His trainer, Todd Pletcher, was delighted by the development: “We were going to take anything they gave us.”) Suddenly California Chrome was surrounded — Commissioner in front of him, horses outside of him, another rival at his heels.
As the race unfolded, NBC analyst Randy Moss turned to his colleague, ex-jockey Jerry Bailey, and said: “No way.” Moss had studied the films of California Chrome’s losses early in his career and observed, “He seemed to be uncomfortable and considerably less effective when he was in a crowd getting dirt kicked in his face. That’s why Espinoza in the Preakness was so adamant about getting him to the outside.”
Espinoza said he didn’t go to the front because his mount didn’t feel right to him. But jockeys are often afraid to send horses aggressively to the lead because they know they will be relentlessly second-guessed if the strategy fails. And Espinoza may have been affected by all of the hype surrounding his mount. This was a superstar — he could do anything!
Instead of using his mount’s speed and forcing his rivals to try to catch him in the stretch — his tactics in the Derby and Preakness — he was now asking California Chrome to outkick Tonalist and Commissioner in the final quarter mile.
At the 11 / 2-mile distance — which never figured to be California Chrome’s forte — he couldn’t do it. Tonalist beat Commissioner in a photo finish.
The people connected with California Chrome concluded immediately that he hadn’t been his usual self. “As soon as he came out of the gate,” Espinoza said, “he was not the same.” After the race, the colt had blood coming from his right front foot — he had evidently kicked himself — and this certainly might have affected him.
People in racing — including jockeys — often ignore the way the dynamics of a race affect its outcome. Horses may win with perfect trips, but their success is invariably credited to their innate superiority.
California Chrome benefited from perfect trips — and perfect rides by Espinoza — in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and won each by less than two lengths. After a more difficult trip at a difficult distance, he lost the Belmont by two lengths.
Could the difference in circumstances make a four-length difference? Absolutely. (That’s why the “he wasn’t himself” and bloody foot explanations must be taken with grains of salt.)
If a horse secures a clear early lead, could that advantage be worth at least two lengths in comparison to almost any other kind of trip? Usually it will.
Might California Chrome have won the Belmont with a ride that better utilized the colt’s superior speed? Maybe.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.