Horse racing's 36-year quest to find the next great American hero and propel a fading sport back into the spotlight has once again let opportunity slip from its hooves.
California Chrome, a colt with a crazy back story, became the 13th horse since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but fail to win the Belmont Stakes.
On a Saturday evening in which Elmont, N.Y., became the center of the sporting world the 3-year-old colt finished in a tie for fourth in the 1 1?2-mile race.
Tonalist edged Commissioner at the wire while Medal Count took third. Wicked Strong finished in a dead-heat with California Chrome for fourth.
There was a twist of irony in the winner's circle.
Tonalist is owned by Robert Evans, whose late father and Pittsburgh native, Thomas Mellon Evans, owned Pleasant Colony, the horse that in 1981 won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes but lost at Belmont in its bid to win the elusive crown.
Speaking with a Baltimore Sun reporter last week, Robert Evans called his father, who died in 1997, "the luckiest guy in the world" and recalled confidently telling his father that Pleasant Colony would win the Kentucky Derby 33 years ago.
Mr. Evans, 70, was born in Pittsburgh and is the chairman of Crane Co., an industrial manufacturing company based in Stamford, Conn., where he and his wife, Susan, reside. He owns a 500-acre farm in Easton, Md., but Tonalist was his first Triple Crown entrant in almost 50 years as a thoroughbred owner and breeder.
On Saturday, it was his turn to play spoiler.
"I was slightly surprised," Mr. Evans said of Tonalist's victory.
He almost didn't even own Tonalist, but because of a tie to Pleasant Colony, who was the sire of Tonalist's dam, he decided to purchase the colt, he said.
While California Chrome had never run at Belmont, Tonalist was very familiar with the course. He is stabled at Belmont and won the Peter Pan - the traditional tuneup for the Belmont Stakes - on May 10.
"That proved he was a good horse, we had four weeks to get ready for this," Mr. Evans said.
The crowd of more than 100,000 roared its approval at the sight of California Chrome, and if enthusiasm counted, the horse would have won easily. But it doesn't.
California Chrome broke alertly and settled on the rail, but he found himself in the unfamiliar position of being behind horses as the race entered the backstretch. Jockey Victor Espinoza angled him out entering the stretch, but when the horse was asked to track down the leaders, he didn't respond as he has in the other races.
After the race, co-owner Steve Coburn unleashed a tirade against the Triple Crown system that allows horses to skip a race. In particular he was blasting Tonalist, who did not have enough points to qualify to run in the Derby.
"I'm 61 years old and I'll never see in my lifetime another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this," Mr. Coburn said. "It's not fair to these horses who have been in the game since Day 1. If you don't get enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races.
"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 him. This is a coward's way out."
Tonalist paid $20.40 to win, $9.60 to place and $7.00 to show. Commissioner was at $23.20 and $13.20 for place and Medal Count paid $13.20 to show. The winning margin was a head. California Chrome finished about three lengths back.
It wasn't the first time Mr. Espinoza had a chance to win the Triple Crown. He was aboard War Emblem in 2002 when the horse stumbled out of the gate, had to rush to the front, but faded in the stretch and finished eighth.
Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919. He was followed by Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in '35, War Admiral in '37, Whirlaway in '41, Count Fleet in '43, Assault in '46, Citation in '48 and then three superstars in the '70s - Secretariat ('73), Seattle Slew ('77) and Affirmed.
The trick to winning the Belmont often lies in surviving three races in five weeks rather than 11?2-mile distance, a race rarely run on the dirt in the U.S. The Triple Crown starts on the first Saturday in May with the Kentucky Derby over the classic 11?4 miles and the Preakness Stakes is two weeks later over 13?16 miles. The Belmont follows in three weeks. Only 11 horses have ever won all three races.
Still, while the dream ends it makes the story nonetheless amazing.
California Chrome was bred with all the regality of an equine Oliver Twist. (Please sir, I want some more.)
Mr. Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin bought a broodmare - Love the Chase - for $8,000 and paid a $2,500 stud fee to the owners of Lucky Pulpit, and out came California Chrome.
Stud fees for the very best horses can go in excess of $50,000.
And the horse was bred in California. In breeding circles, California is to Kentucky as New Jersey is to New York for theater. Only four California-bred horses have won the Kentucky Derby and five have won the Preakness. A California-bred hasn't won the Belmont since 1903.
One person who knew of the mating called the owners a pair of dumb asses. So, Mr. Coburn and Mr. Martin named their racing group DAP for Dumb Ass Partners.
The trainer is 77-year-old Art Sherman, whose only brush with greatness was as an exercise rider for Swaps in 1955. He had never entered a horse in a Triple Crown race until now. His humble nature and unflappability has made him a media star throughout this agonizing race to stardom. And if that's not enough, the horse trained at the near-bucolic Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County. It's primarily a quarter-horse track that exists mostly so that satellite wagering places can have something to bet after 10 p.m. on the East Coast.
California Chrome was the 13th to try to win the three races over a five-week stretch since Affirmed won in 1978. Among those that couldn't do it are some of the best names in recent times: Spectacular Bid (1979), the aforementioned Pleasant Colony, Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008) and I'll Have Another (2012)
So, what happens to California Chrome from here?
First he has to come out of the race healthy.
The owners haven't announced his next move, but one possibility could be to ship him back to California for some rest and then look to run him in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in late August and then finish the season in the Breeders' Cup Classic in early November at Santa Anita. The owners seem to like the idea of racing him as a 4-year-old rather than immediately retiring him to stud.
It's unclear how California Chrome will do once he does transition to the breeding shed. His questionable lineage is likely to keep the price down until he can establish himself as a sire. Some have speculated that his stud fee initially would be well below $50,000.
But for now everyone can reflect on a wonderful ride of history almost in the making. Nonracing fans will likely forget about California Chrome before Labor Day or maybe even July 4.
But for five exciting weeks he ruled a segment of the sports world. And now, he is still a star, just not as big a star as everyone wanted.
Tim Martin of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Associated Press contributed.