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Tonalist spoils California Chrome's bid for the Triple Crown; Chrome owner cries foul

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

The longest wait in sports is not over.

California Chrome's bid to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 fell short in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

After winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes by a length and a half, the mile-and-a-half Belmont proved to be too much for Chrome, who finished fourth to winner Tonalist.

And with that, the longest drought in Triple Crown history continues.

Since Affirmed's sweep 36 years ago, 13 horses now have gone to Belmont Park with the Derby and Preakness in hand only to falter somehow, some way. Real Quiet was nipped at the wire in 1998; War Emblem stumbled out of the gate in 2002; Smarty Jones faltered down the stretch in '04; and I'll Have Another was scratched with an injury the day before the race in '12.

Now add Chrome's fade down the stretch to the list.

The loss brought out a bitter reaction from Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, who was upset by the fact that the winner of the Belmont once again did not race all three legs of the Triple Crown. 

"It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day 1," Coburn told NBC. "... This is a coward's way out in my opinion ...

"Our horse had a target on his back. Everybody else lays out one, or they won't run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. They'll wait until the Belmont. You know what, if you've got a horse, run him in all three."

Of the 11 horses that were entered into the Belmont, only three (including Chrome) ran the Derby and Preakness, too.

These days, if their horse doesn't win the Derby, some trainers do hold them out of the Preakness knowing the extra rest gives them an advantage in the mile-and-a-half Belmont.

When Affirmed won in '78, the Belmont field consisted of only five horses, with his chief competition Alydar running all three legs of the Triple Crown alongside him.

Conversely, when Smarty Jones got passed in the final few strides of the '04 Belmont, many wondered where Birdstone, at 36-1 odds, had come from. It wasn't the Preakness, because after finishing eighth in the Derby, trainer Nick Zito skipped the second leg.

Going into Saturday's race, only once in the last 12 years – in 2005 – had a horse that ran at the Preakness actually won the Belmont Stakes.

Make it once in 13 years, as Tonalist hadn't raced since May 10 and competed in only one leg of the Triple Crown – Belmont.

"I don't think I have a comment on that," Tonalist owner Robert Evans told NBC when asked about Coburn's comments.

Still, it was an impressive run for Chrome, especially considering the horse's backstory: a modest pedigree, blue-collar owners, 77-year-old trainer who'd never sniffed a Triple Crown start until now and jockey who was believed to be past his prime.

Chrome was bred from a mare that cost $8,000 – a pittance in the million-dollar world of thoroughbred racing. But many so-called experts thought even that was too steep a price to pay for a horse with unimpressive bloodlines. Not Coburn and Perry Martin, who saw something others didn't in Love the Chase.

That something proved to be a colt named California Chrome, born to Love the Chase on Feb. 18, 2011.

Whatever questions there were about the horse's pedigree were vanquished in the months leading up to the Derby when Chrome won four straight races, a streak that began with 42-year-old jockey Victor Espinoza taking the mount.

The streak reportedly led to a pre-Derby offer of $6 million for a 51 percent stake in Chrome, which Martin and Coburn turned down.

They wanted their shot at Derby glory, with their jockey and their trainer, Art Sherman. Giving up control of Chrome would have stripped them of all of that, and likely meant Sherman, a lifer whose résumé is long on starts but short on glory, would have been out.

Don't think it was an easy decision. These aren't your average thoroughbred owners – and by average we mean deep, deep pockets. Martin owns a product testing company in Sacramento, Calif., while Coburn makes magnetic strips for credit cards.

They dubbed their stable "Dumb Ass Partners" because that's what people called them after purchasing Love the Chase. And after turning down a seven-figure offer for Chrome, the name might have fit.

Except that again they knew something everyone else didn't.

Chrome went into the Derby a 5-2 favorite and won after charging away from the field as it entered the stretch. Then the three-year-old did the same at the Preakness two weeks later.

Dumb asses no more, Martin and Coburn headed to Long Island for a chance at immortality, only to fall just short.

Now, instead of having California Chrome's name added to the list of legends – Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed – California Chrome becomes the 23rd horse to win the Derby and Preakness, but not the Belmont.

[Slideshow: Triple Crown winners]

If there is a silver lining in the loss it's that the elusiveness of the Triple Crown endures, providing casual fans a reason – that is to see something that hasn't been done in a long, long time – to watch. While this is no consolation for California Chrome and his attachments, it does extend for yet another year a five-week window of intrigue into a sport that's starving for attention.

TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
Year Horse Jockey Trainer Owner
1919 Sir Barton John Loftus H.G. Bedwell J.K.L. Ross
1930 Gallant Fox Earl Sande James Fitzsimmons Belair Stud
1935 Omaha William Saunders James Fitzsimmons Belair Stud
1937 War Admiral Charley Kurtsinger George Conway Samuel D. Riddle
1941 Whirlaway Eddie Arcaro Ben A. Jones Calumet Farm
1943 Count Fleet John Longden Don Cameron Mrs. J.D. Hertz
1946 Assault Warren Mehrtens Max Hirsch King Ranch
1948 Citation Eddie Arcaro Ben A. Jones Calumet Farm
1973 Secretariat Ron Turcotte Lucien Laurin Meadow Stable
1977 Seattle Slew John Cruguet William Turner Jr. Karen L. Taylor
1978 Affirmed Steve Cauthen Lazaro S. Barrera Harbor View Farm
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