ELMONT, N.Y. — In the end, California Chrome could not outrun recent history.
All week, veteran horsemen had pointed to the 11/2-mile oval at Belmont Park, the longest in American thoroughbred racing, and predicted it would be the grueling expanse on which his Triple Crown quest withered. They had seen it too many times, brilliantly fast horses losing their juice down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes.
Surely this son of a sluggish filly and an unremarkable stallion would falter, just as Big Brown and Smarty Jones and Silver Charm had in the 36 years before him. It wasn't the result most in racing wanted, but the skeptics' logic held.
Running his third race in five weeks, California Chrome never could find his usual burst of speed Saturday. He finished tied for fourth behind the victorious, and fresher, Tonalist and joined a list of 12 others who've fallen one victory short of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
His defeat surely will fuel debates about the very nature of the Triple Crown, with many, including California Chrome's owners and trainer, arguing that the three-race test is no longer fair. Co-owner Steve Coburn called it a "coward's way out" to run fresh horses in the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Long before Saturday, Coburn and trainer Art Sherman had advocated for longer breaks between the races. Coburn also argued that the Preakness and Belmont Stakes should be closed to horses who haven't run the previous legs. A Triple Crown aspirant, he said, shouldn't have to face an armada of refreshed horses at the end of his quest.
Such challengers, known as fresh shooters, have dominated the Belmont in recent years, often beating seemingly superior horses who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Tonalist owner Robert Evans declined to comment on Coburn's suggestion that horses such as his shouldn't be allowed to run in the Belmont. But he did come out in support of longer breaks between the races.
"It would be a little bit better for the horses," he said. "And it would give us more time to promote it."
Others spoke for tradition, saying the Triple Crown is supposed to be this grueling a test. "We'll see another Triple Crown winner," said Dale Romans, owner of third-place finisher Medal Count. "You don't make things easier just because it hasn't been done."
Tonalist was the ninth straight Belmont winner not to have run in the Preakness, and Evans had a unique perspective for his feat: His father, Thomas Mellon Evans, owned Pleasant Colony, who lost a 1981 Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, and Tonalist is Pleasant Colony's grandson.
"I came to the Belmont in 1981 with high hopes for Pleasant Colony," he recalled. "I've been where Steve Coburn's been, and it's not fun when you don't win. It was very quiet after he didn't win."
It was the second Belmont disappointment for California Chrome's jockey, Victor Espinoza, who finished eighth aboard War Emblem in 2002 after wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He kept California Chrome slightly off the pace, as he had in other races, but never felt the chestnut colt had a big move in him.
"I noticed something as soon as he came out of the gate," Espinoza said. "He was not the same."
Afterward, trainers tended to California Chrome's front right hoof, which he reportedly cut coming out of the gate.
California Chrome's near-miss story surely will overshadow Tonalist's triumph, which came in just his fifth career race. The colt missed a shot at qualifying for the Kentucky Derby because he was ill, and did not show his true potential until he won the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. He was the first horse to start a Triple Crown race for Evans, who owns 500-acre Courtland Farm in Easton.
The 70-year-old owner was visibly moved after the race, describing how he visited his father's grave in Connecticut the day before. "I just thanked him for putting me in position to do this," he said.
Tonalist went off as a 9-1 choice and paid $20.40 for the win, $9.60 to place and $7 to show. Second-place finisher Commissioner paid $23.20 and $13.20. Medal Count paid $13.20.
The loss in the $1.5 million Belmont brought a gloomy conclusion to one of the great populist tales in recent thoroughbred history. California Chrome was the hero of the little guy, a horse of unremarkable pedigree whose owners — a California businessman and Nevada manufacturing worker — paid a modest $10,000 to breed him. With his versatile speed, chestnut color and four white stockings, he evoked many great champions, including the most popular of them all, Secretariat.
Fans packed the massive grandstand at Belmont Park, roaring when California Chrome stepped onto the track. Many waved "Triple Chrome" signs in the horse's purple-and-green color scheme. Some even wore "Chrome" nasal strips to mimic their hero's famous bit of equipment.
California Chrome's connections became as great a fascination as the horse in recent weeks. There were the co-owners, the self-proclaimed Dumb Ass Partners: reclusive Perry Martin, who masterminded the colt's rise from unremarkable 2-year-old to Kentucky Derby champion, and heart-on-his-sleeve Coburn, who spoke of California Chrome almost as a son fulfilling his father's dreams.
They turned down a $6 million offer for controlling interest in the horse, eschewing life-altering profit for a chance to ride through the Triple Crown.
There was Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer who had worked with the great horse Swaps as a teenage exercise rider and had waited a racing lifetime to get near another champion of the same class.
And then there were the guys who spent every waking moment with California Chrome: understated assistant trainer Alan Sherman, Art's son; devoted groom Raul Rodriguez; and good-natured exercise rider Willie Delgado.
Delgado, who moved from Maryland to California last summer with an uncertain future in front of him, dubbed the three men and the horse the "Four Amigos."
After the race, Delgado stood still on the track with his arms folded over his chest. Alan Sherman showed little emotion as he accepted a kiss from his wife.
"He tried hard," the assistant trainer said. "That's all we can ask for. It's a tough road on these young horses, and he was a little bit flat today."
He refused to be glum about the overall experience. "It's not disappointing at all," he said. "Hey, this horse took us on the ride of our life. I couldn't be happier with this horse. He didn't give up. He tried, and he just couldn't do it today."
With his loss, California Chrome fell short of a rarefied class that includes the great Triple Crown winners of the 1970s — Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. But in many ways, his task was more difficult than theirs. Seattle Slew beat seven horses in the Belmont Stakes; Secretariat and Affirmed, four each. California Chrome faced 10 other horses, only two of whom had run the previous two legs of the Triple Crown.
Romans said he didn't want to hear anyone calling California Chrome a disappointment. "This is a super horse," he said. "Maybe a mile and a half was a little more than he wanted to do. But to use the word failure around him is ludicrous."
The roll call of near misses is familiar to racing fans by now.
Silver Charm, worn out and passed in the last 50 yards in 1997. Real Quiet, bumped twice down the stretch and beaten by a nose in 1998. Smarty Jones, pushed out too early by his jockey and caught down the stretch while a record crowd fell silent as a tomb in 2004. Big Brown, pulled up midrace as an overwhelming 3-10 favorite in 2008. I'll Have Another, scratched because of a tendon injury in 2012.
Some of those near misses stood at least as far above their 3-year-old peers as California Chrome. Some twist of fate derailed each one.
Now California Chrome will be added to the parade of names — the what-could-have-beens.