NEW YORK -- California Chrome failed in his bid to win the first Triple Crown in 36 years on Saturday, losing the Belmont Stakes to long shot Tonalist and leaving his owner to complain others took "the coward's way out" by skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Before a crowd of tens of thousands hoping to see history, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. California Chrome's loss extended the longest drought without a Triple Crown champion.
California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was bitter about horses skipping the first two legs and then stealing the Belmont. Six of the last eight Belmont winners did just that.
"That's the coward's way out," he said. "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 in the other two races. It's all or nothing."
Coburn thought the other 10 horses ganged up on California Chrome, who was second early, dropped to fourth and then fifth before dead-heating for fourth. Photos after the race showed Chrome also had a bloody gash on his right front foot, a minor injury that might have hurt his chances.
Coburn had voiced a similar complaint after the Preakness, saying only the 20 horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to run in the other two legs. He also believed that horses skipping the Preakness should not be allowed to return in the Belmont.
"The Triple Crown itself, obviously it's tough," winning trainer Christophe Clement said. "If it would be easier to do it, then it would mean nothing."
Three tough races in five weeks proved too demanding for California Chrome, who was sent off as the heavy 4-5 favorite. Affirmed remains the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978.
California Chrome is the 12th horse since Affirmed to lose his Triple try in the Belmont, the longest race in the series. In 2012, I'll Have Another won the first two legs but was scratched the day before the Belmont with a career-ending tendon injury.
The raucous crowd was silenced when it became obvious that California Chrome lacked his usual punch in the stretch.
Jockey Victor Espinoza realized long before then that his chestnut colt wasn't up to the grueling 11/2-mile trip around the track's sweeping turns.
"As soon as he came out of the gate, he wasn't the same," Espinoza said.
Alan Sherman agreed. He's the son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman, who spent some 40 years in the Bay Area as a jockey and trainer.
"When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn't respond," he said. "He was wore out, I think. Victor seemed to think he handled the surface fine, and he seemed to come back fine."
Said Art Sherman: "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."
Once the official result was posted, fans sat in stunned silence before heading to the exits.
"I'm very disappointed that we didn't have a Triple Crown winner, but I'm happy for the winners," said Penny Chenery, the 92-year-old owner of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat.
Tonalist, the fifth wagering choice at 9-1 odds, was a fresh and rested horse making his debut on the Triple Crown trail. He last ran May 10, winning the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont dirt.
"I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," said Joel Rosario, who rode the winner.
Tonalist beat Commissioner, another newcomer to the Triple Crown, by a head. Those two horses finished in the same order in the Peter Pan. Tonalist ran the distance in 2:28.52 and paid $20.40, $9.60 and $7.
Commissioner returned $23.20 and $13.20, while Medal Count was another length back in third and paid $13.20 to show.
California Chrome broke quickly but was pressed immediately by Commissioner and General a Rod. Espinoza eased California Chrome back into third along the rail.
Approaching the final turn, California Chrome was maneuvered to the outside. He angled four-wide turning for home, just to the outside of Tonalist. Espinoza started whipping left-handed in the lane, but California Chrome had no response and had his six-race winning streak snapped.
"I thought he was gaining ground, but he didn't have it in him, apparently," Coburn said.
Complete results. PAGE 3