California Chrome ran a brave race but could only dead-heat for fourth as Tonalist won a thrilling renewal of the Belmont Stakes.
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All eyes were on the Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero as he attempted to become the first horse since the Steve Cauthen-ridden Affirmed to achieve the feat back in 1978 but the Lucky Pulpit colt appeared to be feeling the effects of his early season heroics.
Settled just off the pace by Victor Espinoza, who had suffered heartbreak in this race aboard War Emblem in 2002, he was perfectly placed as Commissioner took the field along in the 12 furlong Grade One.
Espinoza pulled California Chrome four wide on the turn into the straight but, try as he might, he could never reel in the leaders as he ran on gamely to the line.
It appeared as though Commissioner had stolen the race from the front but Todd Pletcher's colt was denied in the last strides by the Joel Rosario-ridden Tonalist who was awarded the result after a photo finish with Medal Count third, and Wicked Strong sharing fourth with the favourite.
Rosario said: "This is the Belmont Stakes so this is great ... He keeps on coming and he got the job done today. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to get beat by [California Chrome]. Yes [it's bittersweet]. I was rooting for California Chrome... It was too bad it didn’t happen for him."
Winning owner Rober Evans, is the son of Thomas Mellon Evans, whose Pleasant Colony won the Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1981 only to finish third in the Belmont. Evans' Belmont winner is out of a Pleasant Colony mare.
"This morning I went to my father's grave and thanked him for putting him in this position," Evans said. "I've been where Steve Coburn [California Chrome's owner] has been and it's not fun. I remember it was real quiet after we lost in 1981."
The successful trainer Christope Clement added: "It's a great win; it's great for the team, for the staff, for the owner, Mr. Evans, who believed in us. I'm thrilled."
In an industry where speed is increasingly of the essence, the mile and a half around Belmont Park, New York, really takes some getting and has become a graveyard for Classic stars.
Twelve horses have now tried to complete the famous treble since Affirmed, including such luminaries as Spectacular Bid (1979), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989) and Silver Charm (1997).
In 1998, Real Quiet failed by just a nose, while the last to bid for glory before California Chrome had been Big Brown, who was injured in the 2008 Belmont. I'll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness in 2012 but suffered a career-ending tendon injury on the eve of the Belmont.
The race is the oldest of the three American jewels, pre-dating the Preakness by six years and the Kentucky Derby by eight, having been established at Jerome Park in 1866.
It proved a step too far for California Chrome whose jockey knew that the game was up from the moment the gates opened.
"As soon as he came out of the gate he was not the same," Espinoza said of California Chrome. "By the five-eighths pole he was just empty.
"Turning for home I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little flat down the lane. He ran back-to-back races at different tracks – and all those fresh horses."
The defeat brought out a bitter reaction from co-owner Coburn, who was upset by the fact that the winner of the Belmont once again did not race in 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."
Trainer Art Sherman said he believed California Chrome "grabbed a quarter" or injured his right front hoof coming out of the gate. When California Chrome returned to his barn, he was bleeding lightly from the back of his hoof.
The injury did not stop him from running, but a rival trainer said it likely was extremely painful. "He's a pretty courageous horse to finish fourth," said Billy Gowan, the trainer of Ride On Curlin.