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Three Thoughts: California Chrome's loss raises Triple Crown questions

Photo: Bill Frakes/SI

After a fourth-place finish, California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn criticized the Triple Crown format.

ELMONT, New York -- Catharsis is going to have to wait for at least one more year. A game California Chrome came up short in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, finishing in a dead-heat for fourth place with Wicked Strong behind winner Tonalist, and extending thoroughbred racing's 36-year run without a Triple Crown.

The race began well enough for jockey Victor Espinoza and California Chrome, who broke from the gate as the 4-5 favorite. The pair had good position and was well placed to lead the field around the first turn, but Espinoza held California Chrome back behind early leaders Commissioner and General a Rod, who set soft early fractions of 24.06 and 48.52.

Down the backstretch, California Chrome stayed behind and inside of the lead horses, taking dirt in his face for the first time in recent memory. Espinoza worked the colt to the outside around the far turn, and had him in position to challenge for the lead in the home stretch, but California Chrome never got closer than fourth, and was fading in the final strides.

"By the five-eighths pole, he was just empty," Espinoza said after the race.

GALLERY: SI's best photos from the Belmont

Belmont Park, which had been rocking with the cheers of a crowd of about 100,000 when the race began, went as silent as a church when Tonalist hit the wire.

The result was quite a comedown. All week, ever since the colt worked four furlongs in 47 and three-fifths seconds May 31, the buzz had been building, and, as if lifted by the rising tide, optimism surged that the long Triple Crown drought would finally end. Pessimism was understandable -- 11 horses had come to Belmont since 1978 with a chance to complete the sweep, only to fail in the Test of a Champion -- but not welcome.

"I think he can do it," was repeated so often around the track it became like a mantra. The drought had to end.

Patrice Wolfson, the owner of Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown, summed up the popular sentiment at the post-position draw Wednesday when she said, simply, "It's time."

Surprisingly, the horse's connections did not even try to temper the enthusiasm.

"He looks great to me," said trainer Art Sherman of his colt. "I think we're going to see a Triple Crown winner."

LAYDEN: California Chrome's quest for the Triple Crown

• California Chrome looked so good there seemed only one reason to doubt him: his ability to run 1 and one-half miles. Jockey Victor Espinoza had been judicious in his use of the whip in winning both the Derby and the Preakness, never putting Chrome into an all-out drive, but neither victory had been dominant. The colt was tiring near the finish line in Kentucky on May 3, and he was losing ground to runner-up Ride On Curlin in Baltimore two weeks later. At Belmont, there is no escaping the immensity of the oval, with its sweeping turns and endless stretch runs. Sherman had described the track as "huge" compared to his home tracks in California.

If Chrome had ever made the lead Saturday, it would be easier to say the distance did him in. But he never did. There was criticism of Espinoza's ride in the immediate aftermath of the race. Why tuck the colt in behind rivals, letting him take dirt in his face for the better part of three quarters of a mile, instead of swinging him out into the clear? But California Chrome never seemed bothered by his position.

He did not throw his head back, and he did not duck suddenly out or in. He just never seemed to be getting over the track well. The smooth, loping stride that carried him to victory in Louisville and Baltimore was gone. The more reasonable explanation for his defeat -- for his failure to even seriously challenge for the lead -- is he was simply tired, worn out in his third demanding race in five weeks.

"I think it was tough for him," Espinoza said. "He ran back-to-back races at different tracks -- and all those fresh horses [in this race]."

LAYDEN: The oral history of California Chrome

• There is growing sentiment in the sport that the Triple Crown format should be tweaked, because the current schedule of three grueling races in five weeks is too demanding, and there should be more time between races. Winning owner Robert Evans endorsed this view after the race. His late father, Thomas Mellon Evans, owned Pleasant Colony, who won the Derby and Preakness in 1981, but came up short in the Belmont.

It's an understandable reaction to the ongoing run of Triple Crown failure, but a schedule change not only ignores several of the Triple Crown's near-misses having been agonizingly close, it also ignores that the three races making up the series have never been more popular. Why game the system to get a Triple Crown winner if you are going to rob the achievement of all context? It's a horrible idea.

Steve Coburn, the folksy, cowboy-hat wearing co-owner of California Chrome, melted down on NBC after the race, taking some of the luster off his colt's heartwarming story. With rising anger, he said horses should not be able to pick and choose their spots during the Triple Crown, they should not be allowed to skip a race in the series, or play the role of spoiler by running in only one race if they had not qualified for the Kentucky Derby. He called it "the coward's way out." Coburn was referring specifically to Tonalist, which did not run in the Derby and the Preakness. Winning trainer Christophe Clement wryly noted he was sure he would be able to sleep at night.

The controversy is sure to continue. Much like the Triple Crown drought. The sport will wait for at least another year. Whether it will wait patiently remains to be seen.

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