Chrome's Belmont loss doesn't mean Triple Crown needs to change
ELMONT, New York -- The sound was ever familiar. The voices of more than 100,000 joined as one, rising into the warm evening air with a force greater than desperation, only to fall in silence. Again, tears were shed in disappointment, not in joy. Again, horse racing's Triple Crown remained the province of fireside tales told by aging men and women who remember when Big Red rolled around the Belmont oval in 1973, or when when Slew trounced them all in '77, or when Stevie Cauthen went to the left-handed whip and carried Affirmed beneath the wire in front of Alydar. Again, a generation or more remained without a legend of its own to pass along, left to solider on with musty old stories caked in the cobwebs of time, wondering what history might look like in the flesh.
All of this was ensured at just before 7 p.m. on Saturday night at Belmont Park, when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth place in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes. In the cold, black-and-white arithmetic of the race's chart, California Chrome finished less than two lengths behind the winner, Tonalist; in the reality of a sport that longs for a superstar validated by the first Triple Crown in 36 years, the margin was from here to Man o' War. California Chrome is the 12th horse in those 36 years since Affirmed finished off his Triple Crown to win the Derby and Preakness and fall short in the Belmont Stakes (a 13th, I'll Have Another, won the Derby and Preakness in 2012, but was injured and didn't run in the Belmont). It is a streak of futility that both defines the sport and at the same time, tantalizingly sustains it with narrative force and reliable doses of controversy.
That was acutely evident Saturday when the thundering anticlimax of Chrome's defeat was followed almost immediately by a televised rant from Chrome's decidedly extroverted minority owner, Steve Coburn, who -- even as his wife, Carolyn, tried to quiet him -- criticized the owners and trainers of horses who don't run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, and then ambush a tired horse in the Belmont, often preventing a Triple Crown. Neither Tonalist nor Belmont runner-up Commissioner ran in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.
"This is the coward's way out," Coburn said. "If you can't get the points to run in the Kentucky Derby, then you [shouldn't be allowed] to run in the other two races. It's all or nothing. It's all or nothing. This is the coward's way out, in my opinion."
For the record, Tonalist was pointed toward the Derby in early 2014, after finishing second to another potential Derby horse, Constitution, in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22. But shortly after that race, Tonalist developed a throat infection and missed the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York on April 5, a race in which he needed to perform well to accumulate points for the Derby. Hence, Tonalist didn't qualify for the Derby. Instead, he won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10, six days before -- and 1/16 of a mile shorter, around one turn -- the Preakness was run at Pimlico. In short, his absences from the Derby and Preakness were due to illness, not cowardice. More on this in a moment.
California Chrome had evoked more optimism (though guarded -- with the Triple Crown, optimism is always guarded) than most of the 11 who had failed before him. This had risen in stride with his popularity, driven by the story of his low-rent beginnings (Coburn and majority partner Perry Martin got Chrome from the breeding of their slow-footed mare, bought for $8,000, to a stallion with a $1,500 stud fee) and his 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman.
"And he's a beautiful chestnut, just like Secretariat," said former jockey Ron Turcotte, who famously rode Big Red to his 31-length, Triple Crown-clinching Belmont victory 41 years ago. "It's always exciting when a horse is trying for the Triple Crown, but this year it seems even more so."
Chrome had shown few signs of fatigue from his long campaign (12 races in 13 months), and worked brilliantly a week before the Belmont. But uncertainty hangs over all Triple Crown attempts like a black cloud.
The race: California Chrome broke sharply from the No. 2 post position, as he had done in every race of a six-race winning streak that began when jockey Victor Espinoza began riding him last December. Espinoza had given Chrome skillful trips in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, both times steering him clear of any potential trouble and keeping him on a clear path to the front. This was necessity. Ten days before the Belmont, jockey Alberto Delgado, who rode five of Chrome's first six starts, said, "You have to keep this horse out of trouble. He likes to be in the clear."
Yet in the Belmont, Espinoza faced an immediate decision. Commissioner, who had finished second to Tonalist in the sloppy Peter Pan, and jockey Javier Castellano, immediately darted toward the lead from the No. 8 post. Espinoza did not challenge for the lead, because that would have risked running too fast, too early, and Belmont's 1½-mile distance is much too long for early pace. But he also didn't urge Chrome to the front because, for the first time in six months, he didn't like what he felt beneath him.
"That horse was out in front of me, and I felt it was too soon [to chase],'' Espinoza said after the race. "I felt like California Chrome was not the same today [as in previous races]. I decided to wait."
As he waited, 34-1 longshot General a Rod hurried up past Chrome on the inside and moved into second place. On the long ride up the backside, Tonalist pushed into the mix outside California Chrome.
"He was in a little tight there," Art Sherman said after the race.
Still, Espinoza bulled his way past Wicked Strong on the turn and broke into the clear with three furlongs left in the race. Entering the home stretch, he was three wide, contending for the lead. History beckoned, and the crowd of more than 100,000 roared. "It looked like he had a shot right there, turning for home," Sherman said. "But then he didn't have his usual kick right there, and I thought, 'Uh-oh."' Chrome never fired. Instead, he faded ever so slightly, unable to take command even as the leaders staggered through the home stretch in a plodding 26.09 seconds, by far the slowest quarter of the race.
While there was significant enthusiasm for Chrome, there were others who were wondering if his bloodlines were sufficient for victory at one and one-half miles, especially with anything more than a slow pace. The field went through three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.84. Not slow. Not fast.
"He was the fastest 3-year-old in the country," said Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew (and remains the last living Triple Crown trainer). "I thought the race was over at the three-quarters when they went in 1:12. If they could have gone 1:14 or 1:15, maybe. But at 1:12, if there was anything that people suspected about him, it was whether his pedigree could carry him a mile and a half."
In simple terms, he got tired.
Sherman offered another possibility. After the race, he said Chrome had injured himself leaving the starting gate. Sherman said that, in racing parlance, Chrome "grabbed a quarter," which means his rear foot kicked his front leg and opened a wound.
"He might have had an excuse," Sherman said.
Horses respond to such injuries differently. Trainer Billy Gowan, whose Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin was eased, said, "Some of them won't even keep running. It just shows how much heart [California Chrome] has." Some photographs indicated Chrome may have suffered his injury when he was stepped on by longshot Matterhorn when the horses were leaving the gate.
In the aftermath of every Triple Crown attempt fallen short, there is an abject sense of failure. This is unfair in the extreme, yet also deeply tempting. When standing on history's doorstep, it's natural to feel pain at being locked out. Trainer Dale Romans, whose Medal Count finished in the fourth-place dead heat with California Chrome, forcefully rejected that thinking.
"He's a super horse," Romans said. "There's no way you should ever use the word failure when you're talking about California Chrome. He won the Derby and the Preakness, he finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes."
The future of the Triple Crown is certain to come under intense debate in the wake of Chrome's loss and Coburn's rant. Even before the Belmont, momentum had been building within the sport to discuss the possibility of expanding the time between the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. The Maryland Jockey Club has proposed running the Derby on its customary first Saturday in May, the Preakness a month later and the Belmont on the first weekend in July. (It is uncertain if the New York Racing Association would readily comply with such changes.)
To Coburn's point: Fresh horses have dominated recent Belmonts. In the last 12 years, only 2005 winner Afleet Alex had run in the Preakness (and also the Derby). "We had a target on our back," Coburn said. In fact, fresh horses have long dominated the Belmont. Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens has legendary status in racing because he won five consecutive Belmonts from 1982 to '86. Only one of Stephens's five Belmont winners, Swale in 1984, had run in both the Derby and the Preakness. Moreover, it is hardly tradition that horses run all three legs: Secretariat's Belmont had just three horses that had run in all three Triple Crown races; Seattle Slew's also had three, and Affirmed and Alydar were the only two horses to run the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
But there was a difference. While few horses ran all three races, few also jumped into the Belmont. There were only five starters in 1973, only eight in '77 and only five in '78. On Saturday, California Chrome faced 10 rivals, the most ever for a Triple Crown attempt. The reason? Each of the Triple Crown races is now a huge event in itself. Owners and trainers lust after the limelight that comes with participation, even if it's just in one race. And the ultimate goal for all of them is to win the Derby.
"Nobody is training horses to win the Triple Crown," Turner said. "They're all trying like hell to win the Derby."
And the Derby itself is an exhausting experience for the young 3-year-olds who contest it. Many don't recover for months. It's pointless to demand horses trounced at Churchill Downs in a 20-horse, 160,000-spectator cavalry charge be forced to run back at Pimlico two weeks later. There is only incentive for the winner to carry on.
Yet, does this validate changing the parameters of the Triple Crown, which have been unchanged since the 1970's? It's true the American thoroughbred is less durable than it was four decades ago. Thoroughbreds are bred for speed and short careers, not for winning three classic races in five weeks. But to what end would the series be altered? To force a Triple Crown winner so the sport can finally breathe again? Is that necessary? What took place on Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park? More than 100,000 spectators turned out on a spectacular afternoon to witness an attempt at history that fell short by less than the full length of two racehorses. It is not such a terrible thing. "You don't make it easier just because it hasn't been done," Romans said. "Maybe somebody will win the first two next year and we'll come back and have a great day like today." There is significant narrative force in the drought, growing a little every year.
Said Turner, "You can change it, but you'll have to call it something else."
In the hours preceding the Belmont, Triple Crown-winning jockeys Turcotte, Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew) and Cauthen signed autographs for more than four hours on the first floor of the Belmont grandstand. The line reached more than 200 yards long at times. Behind the three jockeys was a giant mural of Secretariat's mythic victory. So it's true at times, that racing is more museum than sport, and those who would call that a sad thing and mourn California Chrome's defeat will wallow in their tears tonight. They shouldn't. In truth, it is a worthy quest to let horses keep fighting for a place in that museum and wrong to cheapen the requirement for admission.