This was supposed to be the year. The story was perfect.
A couple of working-class regular Joes, self-proclaimed "dumb a----" who were novices to the horse game, scraped together a paltry $10,000 to buy a jittery filly and breed her with a colt that had breathing problems and had never won a major race. The union was a horse with a name picked out of a hat.
Trained by a quiet 77-year-old who runs a tiny barn far off the beaten path way out west and ridden by a jockey who was afraid of horses when he was a child, California Chrome came to the Belmont Stakes wearing a breathing strip and ready to rewrite history Saturday by becoming the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown.
Instead, the perfect story, the unlikely story, became the same old story.
Another year. Another Triple Crown failure. Another disappointment.
Never have you heard 120,000 people turn so quiet as when California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth in the Belmont. He might as well have been dead last.
"I was rooting for him," said Joel Rosario, jockey of the winning horse, Tonalist. "It would have been good for racing. Too bad."
The Triple Crown hunt starts with the most exciting two minutes in sports: the Kentucky Derby.
It ends with what easily has become the most deflating 21/2 minutes in sports: the Belmont Stakes.
And now you start to think we will never see another Triple Crown winner again. Ever.
The drought is now 36 years and counting since Affirmed won the most recent Triple Crown in 1978. And California Chrome owner Steve Coburn thinks Affirmed will be the last winner.
In a bitter — or perhaps, classless — display after the race, Coburn blasted the schedule that forces horses to run three times in five weeks to win the Triple Crown, with the final leg being a grueling mile-and-a-half lap that is easily the most challenging physical test in all of North American racing. The schedule also forces them to beat opponents that run in maybe just one of the three legs.
"I'm 61 years old, and I'll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way we do this," an angry Coburn said. "It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day 1"
Though Coburn's angry rant came off as sour grapes, there is some truth to what he said.
Tonalist was one of four horses in the Belmont that didn't run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. Tonalist hadn't raced since May 10 at Belmont Park. In the past 36 years, some horses at the Belmont have been hired guns, mercenaries brought in to gun down any horse looking to add his name to the stagnant list of 11 Triple Crown winners.
Coburn believes you either run in all three Triple Crown races or none at all.
"It's all or nothing," Coburn said. "Because (running in one or two) is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward's way out, in my opinion."
Meantime, California Chrome trainer Art Sherman joined Coburn in a glass of whine, refusing to even comment after the race.
It's a shame, really, that this is how this chapter of California Chrome comes to an end, especially after Coburn spent the past five weeks practically running to microphones to guarantee his horse would win the Triple Crown.
And it did feel like California Chrome would. A beautiful horse with a cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor, he looked strong in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and was the favorite going into Saturday. As strange as it sounds, he seemed to have the personality, the makeup of a horse that was Triple Crown-worthy.
He showed no signs of fatigue in the three weeks leading up to the Belmont. He took a swift jog around the track at 5:30 Saturday morning and got off to a good start in the race despite kicking himself when the starting gates opened just before 7 p.m. Although pushed to the inside, where he typically isn't comfortable, he was in decent shape midway through the race, sitting in the fourth position.
But when jockey Victor Espinoza asked him to rev it up for the home stretch, the horse had nothing left to give. Belmont's distance had claimed another Triple Crown hopeful. California Chrome finished about three lengths back.
"A little tired," Espinoza said. "I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and he was a little bit flat down the lane."
Espinoza probably could have run a better race. Maybe Tonalist was the better horse. Maybe the schedule is just too brutal, as Coburn claims.
But nothing should be changed.
Not the schedule. Not the rules. Not anything. No matter what Coburn says.
It should take a great horse, a special horse, to join the likes of Secretariat, War Admiral, Seattle Slew and the rest. California Chrome was just a good horse, not a great one.
Too bad. Horse racing could use a great horse. It would make for one heck of a story.