ELMONT, N.Y. — Jose Espinoza stood just inside the tunnel at Belmont Park wearing a bright purple sport coat and the dark look of disappointment.
What do you think happened, Jose?
"Different track," said the brother of California Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza. "Different distance. Different horses."
"The coward's way out," said the sore loser that was California Chrome's co-owner Steve Coburn.
In the end, the Triple Crown drought stretches to 37 years because the Chrome that conquered the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness was no match for the new blood that jumped on the final ride of the classic trail.
Tonalist didn't run in either of the first two legs, yet won the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes before a boisterous crowd at Belmont Park on a glorious Saturday, ending Chrome's bid to become the sport's first Triple Crown winner since 1979.
Commissioner, in his first Triple Crown race of the season, finished second. Medal Count, an eighth-place Kentucky Derby finisher who skipped the Preakness, finished third.
California Chrome, possibly compromised by grabbing his right front quarter as he left the starting gate, wound up in a dead heat for fourth place with Wicked Strong.
"The fresh horses won," said Victor Espinoza.
It is the ninth straight year in which the Belmont winner did not run in the Preakness. Five of the last eight did not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.
"It's not fair," said the outspoken Coburn in an emotional post-race rant that amounted to an epic meltdown before a national television audience.
"I'll never see, and I'm 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this," Coburn said. "It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one.
"(It should be) if you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races. It's all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people who believe in them.
"This is a coward's way out, in my opinion. This is the coward's way out."
Fair? Who ever said the Triple Crown was fair?
There's never been a requirement that horses had to run in all three legs. It's one of the reasons the Triple Crown remains one of the most difficult accomplishments in all of sports. It's one of the reasons so much respect and admiration is given to the 12 who have pulled it off.
It's a shame that Coburn's delivery of sour grapes tarnishes what had been a heart-warming story of a couple of work-a-day guys who spun a $10,000 investment into gold.
Tonalist missed the Wood Memorial because of a lung infection, his absence costing him the necessary points to quality for the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Christophe Clement gave his horse 10 weeks off before winning the Peter Pan at Belmont Park the week between the Derby and the Preakness.
Under the rules, Tonalist had just as much right to run in the Belmont as California Chrome. He proved he possessed the necessary talent.
After three races in five tough weeks, was California Chrome running on empty? No doubt. That's just part of it.
"It's hard on these young horses," said Alan Sherman, the assistant trainer who handled the day-to-day duties. "That's why the Triple Crown is so tough to win. He was just a little wore out, I think."
"I feel like he was a little bit empty," said Victor Espinoza as he trudged up the Belmont tunnel after the race. "I knew as soon as he was coming out of the gate that he wasn't the same."
Art Sherman had an explanation for that. The lead trainer said he believed that Chrome kicked his right front foot with his right rear coming out of the starting gate.
"If he did that," said Billy Gowan, trainer for Ride On Curlin, "then that's a pretty courageous horse to finish fourth like he did."
California Chrome was a courageous Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who, like 11 other horses in the past 36 years, came up short in the toughest race of all. Different race, different circumstances, different result.
Nearly an hour after the race, California Chrome was led back inside Barn 26, and the door was promptly closed behind him.
And with it, another Triple Crown bid.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.