ELMONT, N.Y. — The stark silence that descended immediately upon it being witnessed was the definitive sign another thunderous crash had happened.
He was supposed to be the one, the blazed-faced chestnut hero who had conquered so many of his comrades with condescending ease. Where future Hall of Famers had failed at this very point, California Chrome was supposed to run through the 12-furlong wall before him, carried by his versatile talent and the will of 102,199 who draped themselves in the purple colors of his silks and screamed rabidly for his success.
Its sister track in Saratoga might be known as the graveyard of champions, but Belmont Park's signature classic has the market cornered when it comes to soul-ripping moments.
And in the 146th Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, this latest dual classic winner fell victim to the crush, taken out by a grandson of one who had been on the cusp of history and stumbled himself.
There will be no added company to the list of 11 Thoroughbred demigods who managed to sweep all three American classics. After being so sublime in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, racing's anointed darling California Chrome couldn't turn back the demands of his final 11/2-mile test, finishing in a dead heat for fourth behind upstart race winner Tonalist, who nipped Commissioner by a head in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
The racing community had seen this script before. Since Affirmed became the final Triple Crown winner in 1978, 12 others prior to California Chrome had headed to the Belmont Stakes with a chance at the elusive sweep, only to have injury or circumstance derail those quests.
Still, the hope that this time would be different was palpable, spurred on by the colt's seemingly bottomless talent that had reeled off six straight wins and the relatable tale of his blue-collar connections.
Instead, it all went wrong from the start with California Chrome emerging from the race having grabbed a quarter in his right front foot — something that likely occurred when he stumbled out of post position No. 2.
Whether it was the impact of that cut, the distance questions in his pedigree or the five-week grind catching up to him, California Chrome was hardly the picture of ease in this latest run. Where jockey Victor Espinoza didn't have to go to the well in the first legs of the series, he vainly went from vigorous left-handed urging to right-handed in the lane as Tonalist — whose dam's sire is 1981 Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony — came with big strides to catch surprising pacesetter Commissioner and give trainer Christophe Clement his first classic win.
"That's racing, that's why it's so tough. It's tough to win a race like this," said Espinoza, who also was aboard War Emblem when that one failed in his Triple Crown bid in 2002. "I wish I could explain it why he didn't perform like before. But I feel like he was not really in this race today.
"Today, I feel like his energy was not the same like before. That's why I decided to just wait a little bit longer, behind other horses. I was empty at the three-eighths."
When California Chrome drew post No. 2 in the 11-horse field, there was concern about his being stuck down inside instead of getting the clear, outside stalking trips he had during the Derby and Preakness.
Indeed, the Art Sherman-trainee found himself tracking along the rail as 28-to-1 shot Commissioner — a son of 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy — led the procession through a reasonable half-mile in 48.52 with General a Rod off his flank and Tonalist sitting pretty in the three-path third.
"I thought he was in pretty good shape," said Alan Sherman, son and assistant to his father Art. "I saw when Victor started to squeeze on him a little, he just didn't respond like he had in the past."
Having missed a planned start in the Grade I Wood Memorial Stakes, and thus, a chance at the Kentucky Derby, due to illness, Tonalist put himself on the map for the final leg of the Triple Crown with his 4-length victory in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes over the Belmont track on May 10.
Those fresh legs making just their fifth career start allowed the son of Tapit to surge up three wide taking aim at a stubborn Commissioner at the head of the lane. While cheers exploded as California Chrome briefly ranged up alongside Tonalist, the latter kept grinding his 17-hand bay frame over the sandy track, getting up at the line to avenge Pleasant Colony's third-place finish in his Belmont run.
"Yesterday I went to my father's grave and thanked him for putting me in the position to be doing this," said Tonalist's owner, Robert "Shel" Evans, whose father Thomas Mellon Evans campaigned Pleasant Colony. "It was very quiet after (Pleasant Colony) didn't win ... and it's very satisfying to make up for that.
"He was in perfect position. The 11th post allowed (jockey) Joel (Rosario) to get the horse into stride and do what he wanted to do with him."
As they hit the line in a final time of 2:28.52, Commissioner was a length in front of third-place finisher Medal Count with California Chrome and Wicked Strong dead-heating for fourth.
"I thought he ran an unbelievable race, got beat a tough one," said Commissioner's trainer, Todd Pletcher. "I didn't anticipate being on the lead but we weren't going to take away anything they gave us."
While Clement has a reputation for being a top conditioner of turf horses, the way he has developed Tonalist from a gangly 2-year-old into a classic winner is vindication in its own right.
"As a 2-year-old he trained better and better but early on he was not an impressive horse," Clement said. "He needed time to fill out, he was not a precocious, speedy type. In missing the Wood, we didn't have enough points to make it to the Derby and it worked out. We came to the race with a fresh horse ... and the way he trains now he has an amazing rhythm."
The gash on California Chrome's right front wasn't the only thing that got nasty in the aftermath. His co-owner, Steve Coburn, ranted following the race that Tonalist and others in the field not running in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was taking "the coward's way out".
Both Evans and Clement chose not to comment on said statement. While they stayed silent, safe in the knowledge they had the best horse in the most grueling of classics, the quiet that hung in the air as the results of the race were flashed told the story once again of a quest for history gone off course.
"The horse tried, that's all I can ask for," Alan Sherman said. "He took me on the ride of my life and I'll always have that in my heart."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.