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The Belmont: California Chrome

 


There was no joy in California following the 146th running of The Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. The third gem and with it horseracing’s Triple Crown was tantalizingly there for the taking by California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza. Unfortunately for them, the thoroughbred gods and the rest of the field were the ones writing the final chapter... the same ending had also been penned for the previous 11 horses who were tempted by immortality on the 1 1/2 mile long racetrack during the past 36 years.

On Saturday, June 7, the 3rd highest attendance ever on Belmont Stakes Day witnessed a very competitive race as Tonalist, ridden by Joel Rosario, won by a head over Commissioner with Medal Count finishing one length behind in third. It was a very strange, unfamiliar and sobering sensation for the legions of ‘Chromies’ as they mesmerizingly watched the NBC broadcast feed on the big screen monitors displayed throughout the local Southern California racetracks: Santa Anita Park and Los Alamitos Race Course.

The near-capacity crowds at these local venues held their collective breaths for the first half of the race as Victor Espinoza patiently waited to maneuver California Chrome from the inside off the rail as Commissioner, General a Rod and Tonalist established strong positions. Chrome was finally able to cut outside at the one mile mark and was seemingly in position to launch an attack as his adoring fans sensed the magical moment was about to happen as it had in the previous six stake races. It never happened.

At Santa Anita Park, the once-frenzied masses were completely stunned into a low droning of murmuring silence when California Chrome failed to make his signature-dashing move. Despite Espinoza’s demonstrative strokes with the whip on both sides of his wonder horse for the last 1/4 mile California Chrome failed to respond as they finished tied with Wicked Strong in a photo finish for fourth 1 3/4 lengths behind Tonalist, trained by Christophe Clement.

Espinoza gave his thoughts just after the race as he was walking Chrome off the track and back to the barn: “(California Chrome is) a little bit tired. When I was turning for home I was waiting for the same kick he had before.

Today he was a little bit flat at the end.”

Espinoza was asked about his inside early position in the race once the duo crushed out of the number two starting slot: I was nice and comfortable there and I had a chance to move out. And when I moved out he just didn’t have it today. I think it was tough for him. He ran back-to-back races on different tracks with all those fresh horses.”

The post-race drama continued to be played out as California Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn, obviously worn from the physical and emotional grind associated with his dream colt’s campaign that included wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes as well as his previous four stake race wins that began back in December, lashed out at the racing industry’s Triple Crown format immediately after the race: “Our horse a target on his back and everybody else lays out one and they don’t run in the Kentucky Derby or The Preakness. They’ll wait until The Belmont. This is the coward’s way out.”

Two days later upon reflection Coburn was contrite, apologized and asked for forgiveness on NBC’s Good Morning America show: First of all, I need to apologize to the winners. They ran a beautiful race. Their horse won the race. They deserve that. I did not mean to take anything away from them. He won the race fair and square. It’s a learning process for us and I’m going to do better. I promise you I’ll do better.”

For the many visibly distraught Southern California ‘Chromie’ fans who gathered at their two favorite racetracks and were wondering about California Chrome’s inability to leave the field in the dust down the stretch this time, it soon became a little clearer as to one reason why their hero may not have been capable of producing his magic at the most critical moment.

Trainer Art Sherman revealed after the race that his colt had suffered an injury right out of the starting gate: “He had a big chunk of his quarter taken out. I have a still picture of the number three horse coming over and hitting his right front and taking a big chunk out of it. I can heal that up in about two to three weeks. Then we’ll stop on him for about six or seven weeks and give him some pasture time.”

California Chrome’s remarkable six-stakes winning streak leading up to The Belmont race began on the final racing day ever at Hollywood Park on December 22, 2013 in the King Glorious Stakes. He then brought his class act to Santa Anita Park for the next three stake wins in the California Cup Derby, the San Felipe Stakes and the coveted Santa Anita Derby before his captivating runs in the 140th Kentucky Derby and the 139th Preakness Stakes.

Sherman’s last thoughts and immediate concerns are about California Chrome’s health and well-being in the coming months: “So Chrome is going to have some needed rest. It’s been a tough campaign for him.” It has been quite a run for the ever-popular three-year old who won the hearts of not only horseracing fans worldwide but also the many whom never realized that they really cared about a chestnut colored sensation called California Chrome. Stay tuned. The final chapter in his racing career has yet to be written.

 

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