NEW YORK -- California Chrome's bid to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner since 1978 fell short at the Belmont Stakes as Tonalist upset the colt on the 1 1/2- mile track.
The odds-on favorite to make history today at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, California Chrome never led during the race. Tonalist paid $20.40 on a $2 bet. Commissioner finished second and Medal Count was third. California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth.
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California Chrome's owners missed out on millions of dollars with the loss. Stud fees for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will likely bring in roughly $8 million, about half of what the horse could have made as a Triple Crown winner.
After the race, co-owner Steve Coburn criticized a setup that allows horses -- including today's top three finishers -- to race at Belmont even if they don't compete in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Coburn called it a "coward's way out."
"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 in a televised interview. "It's not fair to the horses that have been in the game since Day 1."
California Chrome raced against two other horses who also ran the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. That's the same number that 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew faced at the Belmont, and one more than 1978 winner Affirmed.
It's the 13th time since Affirmed's Triple Crown win in 1978 that a horse won the first two legs of the series without taking home the Triple Crown. The most recent was in 2012, when I'll Have Another was scratched a day before the race with a leg injury. The most recent to run the race with a Triple Crown on the line was Big Brown in 2008, who was pulled up before the finish line.
California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness last month, went off today as a 4-5 favorite, the eighth odds-on favorite at the Belmont since Affirmed's win in 1978. Of those eight horses whose odds said they were more likely to win than the rest of the field, none finished first.
Tonalist won $800,000 of the $1.5 million purse for finishing first. Commissioner won $280,000 for second and Medal Count earned $150,000.
Tonalist owner Robert S. Evans declined to talk about Coburn's "coward" comment after the race. He said the horse was sick earlier in the year and therefore lacked the points to qualify for the Derby.
Evans said it might be smarter to spread out the three races. There were five weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont this year.
"It's better for the horses and better to promote it by allowing more time to create interest," he said. "Racing has a problem in that it doesn't believe in marketing or selling itself."
Tonalist won the Peter Pan Stakes this year one week after the Kentucky Derby. Evans said he purchased the horse at a "substantial discount" after multiple pitches from previous owner Cathy Sweezey, who had tried unsuccessfully to sell Tonalist in Saratoga, New York.
"I was slightly surprised," Evans said of his feeling immediately after the win. "I told somebody this morning, 'I've been in this game 50 years, I can't wait another 50 years to win a race like this.'"
A winning trifecta on the race paid off $6,781 for a $2 bet. A $2 exacta paid out $348.
Few modern-day thoroughbreds run three races in a five-week span. California Chrome's racing schedule may have factored into his performance today -- the colt has raced 12 times starting with his debut in April 2013, and has never had a rest of more than 57 days.
Jockey Victor Espinoza said that as soon as California Chrome came out of the gate "he was not the same."
"By the 5/8ths pole he was just empty," he said after the race. "I tried to move out to see if it would make a difference, but no."
California Chrome's loss continues a trend of Triple Crown bids failing in a large Belmont field. Today's 11-horse field matches the size when War Emblem (2002), Real Quiet (1998), Pleasant Colony (1981) and Kauai King (1966) lost their Triple Crown bids on the New York track. The 11 horses who have won the series beat an average of 4.4 horses at the Belmont.
By comparison, 23 horses started the Triple Crown races in 1978 when Affirmed last won the honor. This year, 39 horses competed in the three races.
California Chrome probably will net around $8 million in stud fees for owners Coburn and Perry Martin, according to breeder Peter Bradley, founder of Bradley Thoroughbreds LLC in Lexington, Kentucky. That's about half of what California Chrome might have been worth had he won today, and roughly a quarter of the $30 million that trainer Art Sherman said he was worth after winning the Preakness on May 17.
That's because of California Chrome's less-than-royal bloodline and a consolidated horse-breeding industry. Martin and Coburn said they turned down an offer of $6 million for 51 percent of California Chrome before his Kentucky Derby victory.
Joel Rosario, Tonalist's jockey, said the victory was bittersweet because the Triple Crown will need to wait at least another year.
"If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him," Rosario said.
Twelve horses have won the Triple Crown, starting with Sir Barton in 1919. The others are the father and son duo of Gallant Fox and Omaha in 1930 and 1935, War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed.
The 36 years since the last Triple Crown is the longest drought since Sir Barton became the first.