California Chrome’s historic bid dies

Racing reality crashed California Chrome’s feel-good party Saturday.

Ask his owners. In their view, their handsome colt got mugged by a pack of fresh-faced New Yorkers who thwarted the bid for horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown.

It was a gut-wrenching loss and an end of a fairy-tale run for the Dumb Ass Partners, as they had so colorfully named themselves. Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., and Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City traveled to Long Island and joined 102,199 fans – many decked out in California Chrome purple and green and sporting nasal strips like the horse they cheered.

And they saw their favorite finish fourth. The Triple Crown drought will stretch on to 37 years.

Back at the barn, the superstar horse had a bloody foot, an injury possibly sustained bolting out of the gate in pursuit of a win a mile-and-a-half away. Two-and-a-half minutes later, Tonalist, a royally bred colt owned by a Connecticut multimillionaire, won the 146th Belmont Stakes. Based in New York, Tonalist did not race in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.

Coburn was disappointed and angry that Chrome was beaten by a horse that had not run in the first two legs of the quest.

“I’m 61 years old, and I’ll never see in my lifetime another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this,” Coburn said. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the (Triple Crown) game since Day One.”

Runner-up Commissioner, another New York colt, also skipped the first two legs of the Triple Crown to concentrate on the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on his home track. Third-place finisher Medal Count had rested since finishing eighth in the Derby and that likely gave him an edge, too, in Belmont’s “Test of the Champion.”

These new shooters punctured California Chrome’s fairy-tale run. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead heat for fourth with Wicked Strong.

Coburn blasted the nearly century-old Triple Crown system – three major races at different distances at three tracks in three states over five weeks – which allows horses that did not qualify for the Derby to jump into the second two legs of the Triple Crown. With fresh legs, they can ambush a Derby winner that’s already been through several grueling races just to earn a spot in the Derby gate. No Derby winner has won the Belmont Stakes since 1995.

“If you don’t make enough points to make the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other races,” said Coburn, who has become the familiar and outspoken face of DAP Racing. “It’s all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people who believe in them. This is the coward’s way out.”

But Coburn and Martin, longtime racing fans turned small-time owners, came close to claiming the Sport of Kings’ coveted Triple Crown. California Chrome was the first horse they ever bred; the partners spent $8,000 to buy his mother and just $2,000 for his father’s stallion fee.

In a field of 11 horses, California Chrome was surrounded from the start. “Our horse had a target on his back,” Coburn said.

In his 13th start, California Chrome became the 13th horse to have a chance at taking home the Triple Crown since Affirmed succeeded in 1978. All 13 ultimately were unable to complete the sweep.

Victor Espinoza was aboard for two of those failed bids: first in 2002 with War Emblem, then Saturday with California Chrome. Neither horse finished in the top three.

California Chrome, the Cinderella colt with humble beginnings in the Central Valley of his namesake state, had brought him to this peak again. They had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in brilliant fashion, extending an inspirational six-stakes win streak. Since Espinoza took over Chrome’s reins in December, they had never lost.

Until Saturday.

“Coming out of the gate, he was not the same,” Espinoza said. “I didn’t want to use him in the first turn. I thought it would be the right move. (With five-eighths of a mile to go), he was just empty. I tried to move out to see if it would be different, but no.”

Although Chrome broke alertly, Espinoza pulled him back to settle fourth behind pace-setter Commissioner, then attempted to rally in the middle of the track at the head of the stretch. But Chrome could get no closer than third. As Medal Count passed Chrome near the wire, Tonalist nailed Commissioner in the final strides to win by a nose.

“The horse tried hard,” said assistant trainer Alan Sherman. “It’s a long, hard ride on these horses, and that’s why the Triple Crown is so hard to win.”

California Chrome’s comparatively dull performance likely was due to an injury to his right front foot. Easily visible on his white hoof, blood oozed from a wound when California Chrome returned to his barn. Trainer Art Sherman speculated that his star horse may have cut his hoof leaving the gate.

Afterward, the winners were almost apologetic. The massive crowd had come to crown a champion. Instead, they saw another disappointing conclusion to a Triple Crown campaign.

“I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome,” said winning jockey Joel Rosario. “Yes, it’s bittersweet.”

Trained by French native Christophe Clement, Tonalist paid $20.40 for a $2 wager. His final time was 2 minutes, 28.52 seconds, more than 4 seconds off 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s record of 2:24. A Kentucky-bred son of Tapit, Tonalist is owned by Robert Evans, a Connecticut multimillionaire and longtime horse breeder.

Evans could sympathize with the Chrome crew. Thomas Mellon Evans, Robert Evans’ father, owned Pleasant Colony, who is on that list of failed Triple Crown hopefuls. Pleasant Colony won the 1981 Derby and Preakness, but finished third in the Belmont. Pleasant Colony is the sire of Tonalist’s mother.

After Saturday’s victory, Evans questioned the spacing of the Triple Crown races. He echoed a sentiment that the series should be overhauled with more time between races.

But that was no consolation to the fans of California Chrome. Horses only get one chance at the Triple Crown. It will be up to someone else to end the jinx.

Said Espinoza: “Sooner or later, we’re going to break through this bad karma.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee