ELMONT — The collective groan heard at jam-packed Belmont Park late Saturday afternoon signaled yet another Triple Crown failure, continuing a drought that will now reach 37 years. California Chrome added his name to the growing list of horses that have met defeat in the Test of the Champion at Big Sandy since Affirmed crossed the wire in 1978.
Tonalist, a son of Tapit, played the role of spoiler becoming the first Peter Pan Stakes winner to win the Belmont Stakes since his great-grandsire A.P. Indy completed the same double in 1992. Having a race at Belmont under his belt certainly was one of the keys to his victory and as well as coming into the final leg fresh with four weeks rest.
The upset winner’s broodmare sire, Pleasant Colony, was a dual classic winner in 1981, one of those horses on the list since 1978 failing to complete the Triple Crown. Pleasant Colony finished third 11 lengths behind Summing, so the win was a bit of revenge for his dam’s father.
Winning jockey Joel Rosario, who added his first Belmont Stakes win to his impressive resume, savored the win on Tonalist, but noted that it was still bittersweet. “I’m a little bit upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him,” said Rosario.
Questions surrounding changing the Triple Crown series because of the difficulty for a horse attempting to win it against fresh horses and running three races within five weeks time were prevalent after the race. Steve Coburn’s post-race comments echoed his disdain for the way the series is run calling for horses not qualifying for the Kentucky Derby to be excluded from the Preakness and the Belmont.
Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza confirmed that it just wasn’t his horse’s day. “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,” said Espinoza.
The Triple Crown isn’t supposed to be easy to achieve. Only 11 horses have had their names engraved on the trophy designed by Cartier Jewelry and for good reason. Dale Romans who trained third-place finisher Medal Count doesn’t think it’s unfair or impossible. “Eventually it’s going to happen. It’s a difficult thing to do, but that’s why it’s reserved for pure greatness. If it was easy, it’s not a big deal,” said Romans.
The excitement generated by California Chrome since he crossed the line at Pimlico put the sport of thoroughbred racing back on the front page and had an entire country rooting for the son of Lucky Pulpit. “I think it’s just as important, maybe more important, to have a Triple Crown on the line and you can see why,” Romans said. “If the Triple Crown is on the line next year, it will be the same way here and that’s good for racing,” he said.
Jockey Robby Albarado, who guided Medal Count to third, was fixed on Chrome throughout the race. “I had my eyes on California Chrome and obviously the two nice horses in front of us that eventually beat us. At the quarter pole he wasn’t making his patented bid at the lead. I saw that and I knew he was in trouble,” said Albarado.
Albarado reiterated the difficulty in completing the trio of races. “We’d all love to see a Triple Crown winner. For five weeks you have to put three of your best races together with fresh horses coming at you in every leg of the Crown, so it’s a testament of how great of a horse it’s going to take. Inevitably it’s going to happen,” said Albarado.
The current five-week Triple Crown schedule has been in place since 1969, ironically three horses, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all took down the three races in the 70s. Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas in his post-Preakness comments has called for a change in the series with more spacing between the races.
“I respect tradition but I also think tradition cannot impede the growth or betterment of the industry,” Chuckas said. “When we get our most attention we tend to consolidate, which is not beneficial to the thoroughbred industry as a whole. People might say you will have to put an asterisk by the horse who wins the Triple Crown under these conditions. This schedule has changed often so the bottom line is you don’t have to put an asterisk. If you take a look at the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, all of them have gone through transformations with wild card additions and scheduling changes but do you really believe there should be an asterisk by the Seattle Seahawks because they won the Super Bowl under different conditions than the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 1? I don’t think so.”
Of course Chuckas’ Preakness day would benefit from a change in the schedule since horses that run in some of the undercard races on Derby day usually skip Pimlico and run in New York on Belmont Stakes day, so it can be seen as somewhat self-serving. He’s said he will work with officials at Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association toward a schedule that has the Kentucky Derby retain its position on the first Saturday in May, while the Preakness would be moved to the first weekend in June and the Belmont Stakes to the first weekend in July.
Call me an old school traditionalist, but I’m happy with the current series and the difficulty to attain the elusive Crown. The five-week series puts thoroughbred racing in the forefront during a time where it can grab a nation’s attention and hold it without losing momentum. The fact that in nearly a third of the Belmont Stakes since 1978 there’s been an opportunity for the Triple Crown to be bestowed on a horse shows that it’s still realistic that it can happen.
Sour grapes on the part of California Chrome’s connections were fairly evident after the race. They need a few days to cool off and enjoy the ride that their horse took them on, as it was still pretty special, even with the loss in the final jewel.
As for the Triple Crown, I’m looking forward to the day it’s no longer described as elusive and we have a hero standing in the winner’s circle with three classic wins in tow.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.