Elmont, NY -- The Triple Crown wait continues.
The balloon burst for California Chrome at Belmont Park Saturday as his bid for Thoroughbred racing immortality came up short in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. Tonalist posted the upset, surging late to overhaul runner-up Commissioner by a head in the final strides.
The winner proved gallant while making only his fifth career start, joining the Triple Crown fray following a victory in his stakes debut, the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. Tonalist has developed into a very good 3-year-old and doesn’t figure to be a one-hit wonder like previous longshot winners of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, but his success took the air out of the record crowd at the New York track.
California Chrome was in position to challenge as the 4-5 favorite but lacked the necessary rally in the long stretch drive at Belmont Park, dead-heating for fourth with Wicked Strong.
“I thought he was gaining ground (entering the stretch), but he didn’t have it in him,” co-owner Steve Coburn said of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner.
He experienced a much different trip from the first two legs of the Triple Crown as jockey Victor Eszpinoza was previously able to keep California Chrome in the clear, up close to the early lead at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. But after breaking forwardly in the Belmont Stakes, Espinoza eased his mount back to stalk the pace in fourth, in behind horses as they made their way down the backstretch.
He had to navigate his mount wide off of the far turn and it was clear by midstretch that California Chrome didn’t have it. The trip may not have done him in, but it was far from ideal.
”Turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat down the lane,” Espinoza said. “I think (the toll of the Triple Crown) was tough for him.”
Affirmed posted the last sweep in 1978 and Thoroughbred racing fans were left shaking their heads once again as California Chrome became the 12th horse in the last 36 years to win the first two races only to falter at Belmont Park.
“He was worn out, I think” assistant trainer Alan Sherman said following California Chrome’s third start in five weeks.
Tonalist was able to take advantage of his outside post in the 11-horse field, racing close to the action in third while in the clear. He gradually wore down the pacesetting Commissioner in the final furlongs to score as the 9-1 fifth choice in the wagering.
“This is the Belmont, so this is great,” winning jockey Joel Rosario said. “This horse, he did very good today. I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him.”
“It’s a great win. He trained great, he looked great before the race,” added trainer Christophe Clement. “I wasn’t sure he won. We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won.”
Commissioner, a 28-1 outsider, ran a huge race in defeat. He wound up a length better than third-placer Medal Count. Samraat took sixth and was followed under the wire by General A Rod, Matterhorn and Commanding Curve. Matuszak and Ride on Curlin were both eased during the race.
Tonalist was bred in Kentucky by owner Robert S. Evans and is a son of leading sire Tapit. He is out of the Pleasant Colony mare Settling Mist and he’s now earned $957,000 from a 5-3-1-0 ledger.
After racing close to early splits of 0:24, 0:48 2/5. 1:12 4/5 and 1:37, Tonalist recorded a final time of 2:02 2/5.
“(Tonalist is) just kind of a big horse," Rosario said. "He has one long stride, and he just grinds it, and keeps on going and going, keeps on coming, and he got the job done today.”
The Belmont Stakes served as a breakthrough performance and Tonalist could continue to distinguish himself by winning more major stakes races in the future.
But California Chrome’s defeat will always be the main storyline of this year’s Belmont Stakes.