Victor Espinoza blames fatigue as California Chrome denied Triple Crown
NEW YORK // California Chrome’s bid for US racing’s coveted Triple Crown was crushed on Saturday as Tonalist won the 146th Belmont Stakes.
It has now been 36 years since Affirmed became the 11th horse to win the Triple Crown, a drought that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome could not end as he finished equal fourth.
Chrome, ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Art Sherman, was the 13th horse since the 1978 sweep by Affirmed to capture the first two jewels of the crown but come up empty at the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, dubbed the “Test of the Champion”.
Espinoza has now ridden two of those horses, also failing aboard War Emblem in 2002.
“He just didn’t have it today,” Espinoza said after the race.
Tonalist, trained by US-based Frenchman Christophe Clement and ridden by Joel Rosario, had not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, and had shown his liking for the Belmont track with a victory in the Peter Pan Stakes on May 10.
Commissioner, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Javier Castellano, was second and Medal Count third.
California Chrome broke from the second post and was on the rail several lengths off the lead in the early going.
He was well-placed as Commissioner set the pace, but when Espinoza pulled the chestnut colt four wide on the turn into the stretch and it was time to make his move for immortality, California Chrome didn’t have enough.
He ran gamely to the wire, but finished in a dead heat with Wicked Strong for fourth, ending his run of six straight victories.
“Turning for home, I was waiting just to have the same kick like he always had before and today, he was just a little bit flat,” Espinoza said.
Commissioner looked poised to complete a front-running triumph, but Tonalist, who broke from the outside post in the field of 11, thundered home to take it at the wire by a head.
“This is the Belmont Stakes so this is great,” Rosario said. “He keeps on coming and he got the job done today.”
Rosario however knew that California Chrome’s failure would be a bitter pill for many to swallow.
The modestly-bred colt’s story, and that of his working-man owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, had resonated with fans across the United States.
The chance of seeing a Triple Crown winner drew an estimated 120,000 to Belmont Park – many sporting Chrome’s racing colors of green and purple and some even donning human-style nasal strips in imitation of the equine version worn by Chrome in races.
Espinoza did not think it was the 1 1/2-mile distance of the US$1.5 million (Dh6m) race – the longest any of the 11 horses in the field had faced – that was Chrome’s undoing.
Instead he thought the rigors of the Triple Crown – three races in five weeks – had taken a toll.
It was a gruelling road trip for California Chrome, who had never raced outside his home state until his May 3 Kentucky Derby victory at Louisville.
“I think it was tough for him,” Espinoza said. “Right now, it’s back-to-back races and different tracks with all these fresh horses.”
Coburn, caught by television cameras during the race, looked stunned as his colt’s Triple Crown dream evaporated on the track before him.
After the race, an emotional Coburn found his voice, criticising owners and trainers who opt out of one or both of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, bringing a fresh horse to the Belmont for a potential spoiler’s run.
Like Tonalist, Commissioner did not run in the Derby or Preakness, finishing second in the Peter Pan.
“This is not fair for these horses that have been running their guts out,” Coburn said. “Our horse had a target on his back.”
Tonalist owner Robert Evans did not relish the role of spoiler.
“We loved California Chrome – we hoped he would win the Triple Crown,” Evans said. “But we love our horse too.”
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Updated: June 8, 2014 04:00 AM