Commissioner, a 27-1 shot who led or was close all the way, finished second, a head back. Medal Count was third. The winning time was 2 minutes, 28.52 seconds, well off Secretariat's record 2:24.
Tonalist, the Peter Pan Stakes winner who paid $20.40 to win and is owned by Penn grad Robert S. Evans, was ridden ideally by Joel Rosario despite his No. 11 post.
With a crowd of 102,199 roaring, California Chrome broke well. He was never worse than fifth and was in perfect striking position at the top of Belmont's stretch as the finish of this 11/2-mile marathon turned into a four-horse contest.
Jockey Victor Espinoza pushed him one last time, but the 4-5 favorite never fired, ending in a dead-heat for fourth with second-choice Wicked Strong.
"I was just waiting to have that same kick like he always had before," said Espinoza, "but today he was a little flat."
Tonalist had an easy trip under Rosario, settling into the third spot for most of the race and pulling ahead of a surprisingly stubborn Commissioner in his final stride.
"I wasn't even sure he won," said victorious trainer Christophe Clement. "We actually thought he finished second. But we got lucky."
California Chrome's feel-good story, a $10,500 horse with the average-Joe owners, captivated a public that otherwise typically ignores the sport.
Following the race, the horse's emotional co-owner, Steve Coburn, wasn't feeling good after watching another Triple Crown dream squashed by a horse who skipped its previous two legs.
The last six horses with a Triple Crown chance were beaten by horses that didn't run in the Derby or Preakness, including Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, beaten by Birdsong in the 2004 Belmont.
"I'm 61 years old, and in my lifetime I'll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this," Coburn said. "If you've got a horse, run him in all three. This is a coward's way out. Our horse had a target on his back. They won't run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. They'll get him in the Belmont."
Relayed Coburn's remarks, Evans, who explained that a lung infection had kept his horse out of the Wood Memorial and thus made a Derby start impossible, refused comment.
The stress and demands of three major races in five weeks is wearying for 3-year-olds. Add a field stacked with well-primed rivals, and the 36-year drought is understandable.
Evans bought Tonalist, who was competing in just his fifth career race, at a discount when no one else at Saratoga's 2012 yearling sales wanted him.
"[The breeder] asked me 10 times if I wanted to buy the horse, and I told her: 'No, I had two horses of my own who didn't sell, and I don't have the money to buy him,' " said Evans.
When the price eventually was lowered, he relented.
The winning jockey was subdued, admitting that California Chrome's failure disappointed him, too. Asked if victory was "bittersweet," Rosario said it was.
"I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," Rosario said. "If I was going to get beat, I wanted to get beat by him."
As evening fell and night began, California Chrome walked off the track and disappeared through a gauntlet of fans.
"Victor [Espinoza] seemed to think he handled the surface fine," said Alan Sherman, Chrome's assistant trainer. (Art Sherman, Alan's father and Chrome's trainer, refused comment.) "He seemed to come back fine. But we'll know more back at the barn."
Afterward, reports surfaced that Chrome had suffered a cut to his right front hoof. But whether his health was good or bad, most of those disappointed fans who left Belmont will no longer care.
"A Triple Crown would have been nice," Rosario said. "Maybe next year."
Another One Bites the Dust
California Chrome became the 13th horse since 1978 - when Affirmed won the Triple Crown - to fall short of horse racing's ultimate prize at the Belmont.
Horse Year Belmont finish
Spectacular Bid 1979 Third
Pleasant Colony 1981 Third
Alysheba 1987 Fourth
Sunday Silence 1989 Second
Silver Charm 1997 Second
Real Quiet 1998 Second
Charismatic 1999 Third
War Emblem 2002 Eighth
Funny Cide 2003 Third
Smarty Jones 2004 Second
Big Brown 2008 Ninth
I'll Have Another 2012 Scratched
California Chrome 2014 Fourth (tie)