NEW YORK -- California Chrome failed in his bid to win the first Triple Crown in 36 years on Saturday, losing the Belmont Stakes to long shot Tonalist and leaving his owner to complain others took "the coward's way out" by skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Before a crowd of tens of thousands hoping to see history, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. California Chrome's loss extended the longest drought without a Triple Crown champion.
California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was bitter about horses skipping the first two legs and then stealing the Belmont, calling them "cheaters" in an interview with Yahoo! Sports. Six of the past eight Belmont winners did just that.
"That's the coward's way out," he said. "It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. 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."
Coburn thought the other 10 horses ganged up on California Chrome, who was second early, dropped to fourth and then fifth before dead-heating for fourth. Photos after the race showed Chrome also had a bloody gash on his right front foot, a minor injury that may have hurt his chances.
"Our horse had a target on his back," he said.
Coburn had voiced a similar complaint after the Preakness, saying only the 20 horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to compete in the other two legs. He also believed that horses skipping the Preakness should not be allowed to return in the Belmont.
Coburn had been in a festive mood earlier in the day, waving his cream-colored cowboy hat to fans and signing items they tossed to him in his box seat.
But the mood turned ugly after the race.
Three tough races in five weeks proved too demanding for California Chrome, who was sent off as the heavy 4-5 favorite. Affirmed remains the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978.
The raucous crowd of 102,199 -- the third largest in park history -- was silenced when it became obvious that California Chrome lacked his usual punch in the stretch.
Jockey Victor Espinoza realized long before then that his chestnut colt wasn't up to the grueling 1½-mile trip around the track's sweeping turns.
"As soon as he came out of the gate, he wasn't the same," Espinoza said.
Alan Sherman, the son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman, agreed.
"When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn't respond," he said. "He was wore out, I think."
Once the official result was posted, fans sat in stunned silence before heading to the exits.
Penny Chenery, the 92-year-old owner of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, had been ready to welcome a new member to the exclusive club. She and others with ties to previous Triple Crown winners came to watch what they hoped would be California Chrome's big day.
"I'm very disappointed that we didn't have a Triple Crown winner, but I'm happy for the winners," she said.
Tonalist, the fifth wagering choice at 9-1 odds, was a fresh and rested horse making his debut on the Triple Crown trail. He last ran and won the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont dirt on May 10.