Another disappointment is no longer a surprise
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The muted roar of the huge crowd told you everything the racing world didn't want to hear. The Belmont Stakes had denied another thoroughbred who was trying to be remembered forever.
Victory could have transformed California Chrome into the rarest of creatures, a living immortal. Instead, he failed "The Test of the Champion" Saturday, finishing in a dead heat for fourth, two lengths behind 9-1 shot Tonalist. So the seemingly endless wait goes on, 36 years after Affirmed outdueled Alydar to become the 11th Triple Crown champion.
The embattled sport couldn't get lucky with the 13th horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed's coronation in 1978. The California-bred with the obscure pedigree couldn't bring home racing's most coveted trophy, just like Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and I'll Have Another, who was scratched before the 2012 Belmont.
Eddie Arcaro rode Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation, and before his death in 1997 he said, "You'll never see another one." He may have been right. Starting in 1979, something bad always has happened to horses bidding for a sweep. The third classic in five weeks is the most demanding, and the 1½-mile marathon again brought down a 3-year-old carrying the hopes of millions.
After the race, California Chrome's highly opinionated co-owner Steve Coburn denounced other owners and trainers who sit out the Preakness Stakes and send out a fresh horse to "upset the applecart" of a Triple Crown contender. For the ninth consecutive year, a horse who skipped the series' middle leg won the Belmont.
"Our horse had a target on his back," Coburn said angrily. "The 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby [should be] the only ones eligible to run in all three races.''
But they did, ruining the soiree.
Art Sherman, California Chrome's 77-year-old trainer, had predicted what would happen if his horse of a lifetime won the Belmont. "You're going to see parties like you've never seen before in California," he said. "This horse is like the Messiah for California."
In Arcadia, where his Santa Anita Derby runaway made him the clear-cut Kentucky Derby favorite, and Los Alamitos, where Sherman's stable is based, the parties ended abruptly. Thousands wearing black and silver California Chrome T-shirts and purple hats with green jackasses screamed in bitter disappointment.
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for an underdog story too absurd for any script. California Chrome's beginnings couldn't have been more humble, the product of a mating of the mare Love the Chase, who cost Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, $8,000, and the obscure Lucky Pulpit, whose stud fee is a measly $2,500.
The first horse they ever bred entered the world on a cattle ranch in the small town of Coalinga, home of California's largest stash of cow dung. Coburn soon began making outlandish predictions, first that "Chromie" would win the Derby, then adding the Preakness and the Belmont to his visions. Two out of three is terrific, but defeat left an aching emptiness for millions.
Coalinga is in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, setting of John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath." It depicted the rough lives of the "Okies" from Oklahoma's Dust Bowl who picked fruits and vegetables near where "Chromie" would be born. Coburn calls him the "the people's horse," and undoubtedly many descendants of those rootless souls were on his bandwagon. As it was for Steinbeck's characters Tom Joad and Jim Casey, fate was cruel.
California Chrome's assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, knew his colt was in trouble at the top of the stretch. "I saw Victor [Espinoza] starting to squeeze on him a little," he said, "and he didn't respond the way he has in the past.'"
Throughout an exhausting, exhilarating journey from California to Kentucky to Maryland to Long Island, Art Sherman marveled about how the racing gods made him their chosen one so late in his 60-year career. On Tuesday, Sherman reflected on a glorious run that no one but Coburn could have predicted.
"I don't have anything to prove, so I'm more laid back this time," said Sherman, who wasn't his usual gregarious self after the race, when he declined to be interviewed. "I don't think he has to win the Belmont to be a hero. He'll always be my hero."
He could have been everybody's.
Before the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, Sherman tried to ease the pressure by repeating "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Unfortunately, it wasn't.