By Jeff Frank, The Sports Analyst
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, a vigorous threesome of races to win in a five-week span, thwarted another Triple Crown hopeful on Saturday as California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth in the Belmont Stakes.
The Derby and Preakness winner became another in the long list of odds-on favorites to fall in the final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Tonalist (9-1) was the winner, defeating Commissioner (28-1) in one of the closest finishes in Belmont Stakes history. Medal Count (24-1) hung on for third while California Chrome and Wicked Strong finished in a dead heat for fourth.
The winner was a fresh colt, having raced just once since late February. That one event was a victory in the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont Park surface he raced on Saturday. Tonalist was the first Peter Pan-Belmont Stakes winner since A.P. Indy crossed the wire on top in both races in 1992.
It is easy to see that winning the Peter Pan does not automatically ensure a Belmont Stakes victory since it had not been accomplished in over two decades. However, a race over the Belmont Park track could be viewed almost as a prerequisite to winning the “Test of the Champion.”
Nine of the previous 12 Belmont Stakes winners, including Tonalist, ran at least one time at Belmont Park prior to the third leg of the Triple Crown. One could even call it a home-track advantage as seven of those 12 winners began their racing career on the NYRA circuit. California Chrome, despite 12 previous trips to the starting gate, had not seen Belmont Park until arriving in New York in late May.
As for Tonalist, he proved his victory over the sloppy track in the Peter Pan was no fluke. The son of Tapit had a great trip, almost the same one California Chrome enjoyed in the Preakness, as he sat outside the early speed, namely Commissioner and General a Rod.
Meanwhile, California Chrome was stuck on the inside, a spot he has not been accustomed to in all of his 2014 victories. Could that have been a factor in the loss? Maybe, but he still ranged up four-wide, ready to pounce, as the field approached the top of the stretch.
Unfortunately, California Chrome did not possess his usual accelerated kick into the homestretch and once the horses dashed inside the final furlong, it was obvious it was not going to be his day.
On the other hand, Tonalist was battling with Commissioner, as Medal Count also loomed as a threatening presence in between. With 1/16 of a mile to go, it looked as if Commissioner was going to push through on the rail for the win, but Tonalist was not giving an inch.
Tonalist prevailed as the two hit the wire almost at the same time. Medal Count was a length back in third. The winner paid $20.40 while the $2 exacta came back a generous $348.00.
The final time of 2 minutes, 28.52 seconds was the fastest Belmont since Summer Bird’s win in 2009. That year, Todd Pletcher sent his colt Dunkirk to the front to try to steal the race and almost succeeded, finishing second as the 9-2 co-second choice.
This year, Pletcher almost did it again but with a much longer-priced colt. Commissioner wound up running a game second, almost giving his trainer back- to-back Belmont Stakes victories. (Palace Malice won for Pletcher in 2013.)
HISTORY NOT ON CALIFORNIA CHROME’S SIDE
I mentioned last week how hard it has been for odds-on favorites to win the Belmont Stakes. Since 1940, there have been 34 odds-on choices in the race with just 12 winners. That equates to a 35 percent winning percentage.
Moreover, when the Triple Crown is on the line — 20 times since 1941 — only seven odds-on horses have come home with the trophy, good for the same 35 percent.
Given those statistics, the odds were against California Chrome. The son of Lucky Pulpit joins the list of Big Brown, Alysheba, Canonero II, Kauai King and Carry Back as off-the-board finishers in the Triple Crown’s final jewel.
The question now is: Can the Triple Crown ever be won again? If one listens to Steven Coburn, the answer is no. California Chrome’s co-owner, in what can only be construed as a fit of sour grapes, went on a tirade, complaining about the race and the path that leads to it.
First, he said only horses that have competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown should be allowed to race in the Belmont Stakes. Second, he said the other jockeys in the Belmont ganged up on California Chrome, preventing his charge the chance to win.
How does one counter those statements? The first one is obvious. The Triple Crown is supposed to be difficult to win. Only the most gifted horses are labeled kings of their crops and if California Chrome’s people want his name mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew and others, he has to overcome all obstacles thrown at him.
The second comment is even more ridiculous since two of the three horses ahead of California Chrome up the backstretch were Tonalist, the winner, and Commissioner, the second-place finisher.
It was not the trip or the pace of the race that beat California Chrome. He just was not the same horse on this day after winning six consecutive races. He does not belong on the hallowed short list of Triple Crown champions.
One also could argue that California Chrome is not even 2014’s best 3-year- old. That distinction might go to last year’s 2-year-old Eclipse Award winner, Shared Belief, who made his 3-year-old debut a winning one at Golden Gate Fields in late May. Look for the son of Candy Ride to wind up adding another Eclipse Award to his mantle after the year is through by defeating California Chrome when the two meet later this summer.