California Chrome stumbles in Belmont

PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS Exercise rider Lee Vickers (top right) kisses California Chrome after Belmont. The colt, ridden by Victor Espinoza (above), suffered a cut on his front right hoof during the race and finished fourth, prompting fans to discard signs of support.
PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS Exercise rider Lee Vickers (top right) kisses California Chrome after Belmont. The colt, ridden by Victor Espinoza (above), suffered a cut on his front right hoof during the race and finished fourth, prompting fans to discard signs of support.
Posted: June 10, 2014

ELMONT, N.Y. - It was 5:39 p.m. Saturday when California Chrome left Barn 26 on the Belmont Park backstretch to head for Barn 4, the holding area where horses about to race get blood drawn and gather for the walk through the nearby tunnel to the paddock.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, followed as he was in the Preakness by Ride On Curlin, made his way past the barn of Hall of Famer Bill Mott with the sign that said "Cigar, winner of the Dubai World Cup." Then, he passed by the Phipps barn where Easy Goer emerged 25 years ago to deny Sunday Silence the Triple Crown. And past Nick Zito's stable where Birdstone came out of the shadows to catch Smarty Jones a decade ago.

"Hey Chromie," CC's trainer Art Sherman said, peering through an open window into the shedrow as groom Raul Rodriguez calmly walked California Chrome around the barn. "Did you see him turn his head? He knows his daddy."

A few paces away, co-owner Steve Coburn was surrounded by cameras and notebooks.

"He's holding court," Sherman said, with a wry smile, not knowing but perhaps fearing that Coburn, always on the verge of saying something without thinking, was soon enough going to be acting like a guy who did not realize he got monumentally lucky and did not really know very much about the sport that had taken him on the ride of his life.

"Night and day," Sherman said of his two owners.

Perry Martin, the analytical owner who skipped the Preakness because of the crowds, appeared and the three made small talk.

Somebody handed Coburn a bottle of water.

"That's almost as good as beer," he said, perhaps explaining himself better than his words could.

It was 6:14 when the horses came out of the barn and made a U-turn for the tunnel, the race 40 minutes away.

Chrome had won six consecutive races in nearly identical fashion. The colt had gotten great position on the outside, just a few lengths off the lead and run away from the field in the stretch. The only exception was the San Felipe Stakes where he broke like a shot, took the lead immediately and led all the way, winning by the biggest margin of his career.

When a winning pattern develops, the human reaction is to keep repeating it until it does not work. The true geniuses in the world, the risk takers with a vision, are willing to deviate from the pattern when the optimum strategy is or should be clear.

Chrome had a gigantic tactical advantage in the Belmont Stakes. The colt had an inside post in a race nearly devoid of early speed. The best horse was also the fastest horse.

After it was over and the Triple Crown had gone unclaimed again, jockey Victor Espinoza said his plan was to send Chrome right to the front. But the colt broke to his right and stumbled at the start. Still, Chrome could have been in front in the short run to the first turn.

"I thought I was going to let him go in front," Espinoza said.

But the jockey said the horse did not feel like he had in his other races so he took the cautious, tentative approach. It is possible the colt did not feel right because his right front foot got stepped on at the start and he sustained a superficial cut, a wound which was trailing blood when the race was over.

"I feel like California Chrome he was not the same like before," Espinoza said. "That's why I make my decision to wait a little longer. Before, he's running and he take me right in the race. He helped me. Today, I feel like his energy, he was not the same like before. So that's why I decided just to wait a little bit longer, behind other horses."

Whatever the reason, Espinoza let a much slower horse, Commissioner, take the track from him. The best horse in front has been the best way to the winner's circle forever.

"There's never any trouble in front," Sherman had said back at the barn.

"I didn't anticipate that we would be on the lead, but we weren't going to take away anything they gave us," Commissioner's trainer Todd Pletcher said.

You watch videos of Chrome's races and it was clear that in his defeats, he was never comfortable inside horses and behind horses. He was in both of those places on the first turn and during the entire run down the endless backstretch.

On a surface that was yielding very fast times all day, Commissioner led through moderate fractions of :24.06 seconds, :48.52 and 1:12.84.

Espinoza finally got CC off the rail and outside horses on the far turn. If he was a super horse, he still had a chance. But, after already running the Derby distance of a mile and quarter and probably using up energy from being in an uncomfortable position, Chrome did not have that same explosive kick in the final 440 yards. In fact, the horses were surviving as much as they were running at the end.

Tonalist, owned by the very old money of Robert Evans that was certainly the antithesis of the Dumb Ass Partners, wore down Commissioner in the final strides to win by a head. Medal Count came on to be third. California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth with Wicked Strong, 2 lengths from that Triple Crown, the three-pronged trophy waiting by the winner's circle whisked back to the Kentucky Derby Museum again.

The winner ran the mile and a half in 2:28.53, time that was slow on a surface that was not. They bet a record $19 million on track and a record $150 million on the card. There were 102,199 at old Belmont Park, meaning the three 2014 Triple Crown races attracted crowds of 390,574.

The 5-week Chrome show was sensational, the ending, as usual, unsatisfying. The country's best 3-year-old (the best horse is Metropolitan Handicap winner Palace Malice) was flown back to his Southern California base where he will get a well-deserved 2-month rest. Sherman said he is likely to keep the colt in California all summer and then gear up for a fall campaign, with the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 1 the end-of-year goal.

Coburn's postrace rant should take nothing away from the horse or his trainer. Saying other owners were cowards because their horses did not run in all three races was tone deaf and ill-informed. This is not the NBA playoffs. Horses are not machines. They only have to run when their connections think they should run. The series is a bit unfair, especially in this era when horses run so infrequently. But that is one of the many reasons it is so hard to win the Triple Crown.

"I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," said winning rider Joel Rosario. "If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him."

Chrome lost nothing in defeat. It could have been the distance, the inside trip, the cut, the ride, the campaign (beyond the third race in 5 weeks, the colt has been in constant training since his first race on April 29, 2013) or some combination of everything.

There was nearly $10 million bet to win on California Chrome in the Belmont Stakes. After being perfect for 5 1/2 months, racing reality arrived in the homestretch.

"He tried hard and ran hard and took us all on the ride of our lives," said Alan Sherman, Art's son and assistant.

Horse racing almost never does happy endings. It is simply the nature of the sport. So, you just simply have to enjoy the journey, savor the moments. The Derby and Preakness are forever for the Dumb Ass Partners, the Shermans and Espinozas.

That never changes, nor does the overwhelming challenge of the Triple Crown.

Thunder Gulch (1995) was the last horse to win the Derby and Belmont Stakes in the same year. In this century, only Hall of Famer Point Given (2001) and should be in the Hall someday, Philly's wonderful Afleet Alex, have run in all three and won the Belmont. Alex never ran again. Point Given won twice more in the Haskell and Travers and then was done.

What we ask these modern thoroughbreds to do in these 5 weeks may actually be beyond their physical capacity anymore. Or maybe, when it comes to the last leg, a horse like Smarty Jones is good enough but overwhelmed by circumstance or one like California Chrome, also good enough, is beaten when another strategy may have yielded a different result.

Nobody really knows what would have happened, but it won't stop any of us from gathering at Churchill Downs next May to see what might happen and, if it gets that far, to jam into Belmont Park next June to see what could happen.

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