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Sports Preakness

Once again, a Triple Crown dream vanishes at the Belmont

Instead of a Triple Crown, the sport of horse racing got another Groundhog Day
California Chrome didn't get the third leg of the Triple Crown, didn't even get into the money
Besides training well and showing no signs of problems, California Chrome had an incredible story line

The horse racing story that never seems to happen didn't again here Saturday. Instead of a Triple Crown, the sport got another Groundhog Day.

California Chrome didn't win the Belmont Stakes, didn't get the third leg of the Triple Crown, didn't even get into the money. His day ended with a good view of the rear end of winner Tonalist, finishing in a dead heat for fourth place.

This was projected to be a moment in history, a day to give the sport a much-needed shot in the arm. For those old enough to remember, a Triple Crown always does that. But since Affirmed last won one in 1978, that shot in the arm has always ended up as a broken needle.

Since Affirmed, 12 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Eleven have run for that moment at the Belmont. (I'll Have Another scratched with an injury the day before the race in 2012.) Eleven have failed. That's 36 years with no Triple Crown.

A horse with a shot at a Triple Crown always triggers a bubbling volcano of anticipation. This one, even more so. But, again, no lava. Just a benign puff of smoke.

Besides training well here, looking fit and showing no signs of problems, California Chrome had an incredible story line. He had two rookie owners who turned down $6 million for 51% of their first horse, a personable and quotable veteran 77-year-old trainer and a popular and capable jockey.

Hollywood couldn't wait.

There were co-owners Perry Martin, who lives in Yuba City, Calif., and his friend from Nevada, Steve Coburn, who bought an $8,000 broodmare and invested $2,500 in a stallion and bred them at the Harris Farms in Coalinga. The result was California Chrome. There was laid-back trainer Art Sherman, who handled the media and pressure with grace and endurance. The jockey, Victor Espinoza, had positioned California Chrome masterfully in all of the six previous races, all victories. He was proud of telling everybody how, when he got California Chrome in position to make a run to the wire, he always fired.

Saturday, Espinoza got blanks.

"Turning for home," Espinoza said, "I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today, he was a little bit flat down the lane.

"When I moved out, he just didn't have it."

Then Espinoza added the sentence that was a keynote to the simmering turmoil in the sport, a divisive anger that, on a day that was supposed to bring joy and celebration, brought controversy and vitriol.

"This is not easy," he said. "The other horses are fresh."

An hour or so before the race, the outspoken Coburn got into the spirit of his expected moment of history by standing in a balcony box seat above a sea of fans in the lower-priced seats below and leading them in cheers. Dressed in his California Chrome colors — purple shirt, green tie — he directed the masses below like an orchestra leader.

Soon after the race, he was directing anger, not cheers. He fired away at racing's three-races-in-five-weeks format for the Triple Crown, as well as its allowing horses who did not run in the Kentucky Derby to become fresh runners in the next two races. His theory is that only those who run in the Kentucky Derby should get a shot at the Preakness two weeks later and the Belmont three weeks after that.

"Our horse had a target on his back," Coburn said, "and everybody else lays out one and they won't run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness; they'll wait until the Belmont.... This is a coward's way out."

Tonalist, the Belmont winner, ran in neither.

Racing traditionalists hate talk of a Triple Crown format change. But there seems to be an erosion of that traditionalism that goes beyond Coburn's rant.

Robert Evans, owner of Tonalist, said afterward, "I think it would be better if we spread it out. It is better for the horses and it would be better to promote it. Racing has a problem.... It doesn't believe in marketing or selling itself."

In the paddock before the Belmont, Tom Chuckas, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which puts on the Preakness, reiterated that he still stands fully behind the controversial proposal he made during Preakness week. He said that racing would be dramatically improved by holding the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May, the Preakness the first Saturday in June and the Belmont the first Saturday in July.

In the crowd of perhaps a thousand in the paddock, he stood alone under a tree. He said he has been taking lots of heat over his proposal.

"I was just upstairs and I walked past Penny Chenery," Chuckas said. "She said, 'I respect you, Tom, but you are wrong.'"

Chenery bred and raced the ninth Triple Crown winner, the incomparable Secretariat. His 31-length Belmont victory in 1973 seems now, more than ever, an unrealistic pedestal.

There will always be rationalizations and optimism from many in racing. This is what they do and how they have done it for years.

Espinoza was asked if, in light of what he just went through, he thought there would ever be another Triple Crown winner.

"Sure, one day," he said. "Somebody needs to break this karma."

Until that happens, the certainty remains. There will always be death, taxes and disappointment at the Belmont.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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