ELMONT, N.Y. — By the time he made the final turn on the 1 ½-mile track, the more than 102,199 in attendance sensed what his jockey knew at the start of the Belmont Stakes: California Chrome didn’t have it.
When he finished in a dead-heat for fourth, becoming the 12th horse since 1978 to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but not the Belmont, the shoulder-to-shoulder throng became a whisper of sighs and torn-up betting sheets.
Tonalist, a 9-to-1 long shot, won in 2:28.52 — followed by 28-1 Commissioner and 24-1 Medal Count — and Belmont Park hushed with the realization of continuing the sport’s longest Triple Crown drought.
Everyone, that is, but Steve Coburn.
California Chrome’s co-owner was furious.
He wagged his finger, called names and ignored his wife, who tried to stop him.
And he did so on national television.
Coburn was critical because eight of the 11 entrants in the race that had not participated in all three legs of the Triple Crown, the way Chrome had.
He predicted that a sport so desperate for the first Triple Crown since Affirmed won’t have one anytime soon.
“I’m 61 years old, and I’ll never see in my lifetime another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this,” said Coburn, who co-owns the horse with his wife and Chicago natives Perry and Denise Martin. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day 1.”
Other horses were fresher than California Chrome, who ran his third race in five weeks.
Tonalist had not started in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes, having been too sick to run the Wood Memorial and qualify.
Coburn petulantly demanded that the 20 horses eligible for the Derby be the only ones eligible for all three races.
“Our horse had a target on his back and everybody else lays out one, and they won’t run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness,” said Coburn, whose colt finished in a dead heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. “They’ll wait until the Belmont.
“If you’ve got a horse, run him in all three. …
“It’s 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, in my opinion. This is a coward’s way out.”
He accused the competition of ganging up on — and boxing in — his chestnut colt.
The horse, though, was “a little empty,” jockey Victor Espinoza said.
Espinoza felt Chrome was “not the same” as the last two races. Photos after the race showed Chrome also had a bloody gash on his right front foot, a minor injury that might have hurt his chances.
“By the five-eighths pole, he was empty,” said Espinoza, who also was denied a possible Triple Crown aboard Illinois Derby winner War Emblem in 2002. “I kind of moved out to see if he could make a difference, but no.”
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman said “when Victor started to squeeze him, he didn’t respond. He was worn out, I think.”
What was remarkable about Coburn’s rant was that horse racing might be the only sport in which the winner actually apologizes for spoiling history.
It has happened before, and did again Saturday.
“We loved California Chrome,” Tonalist’s owner, Robert Evans, said. “We hoped he would win the Triple Crown — but we love our horse, too.”
Evans, who declined comment about Coburn’s rant, has been there before.
In 1981, his father’s horse, Pleasant Colony, had a chance to win the Triple Crown at Belmont — and finished third.
Pleasant Colony’s is Tonalist’s grandsire, and the reason Evans bought the horse.
Evans remembers the silence from 33 years ago.
“I’ve been where Steve Coburn’s been,” he said. “And it’s not fun when you don’t win.”