He just wasn't good enough


In the end, California Chrome just wasn't good enough. In the long and, for many, excruciating run down the stretch at Belmont Park, he had an opportunity to win and become the 12th horse in the history of the sport to sweep the famed Triple Crown series, but he just wasn't good enough Saturday. He didn't have it in him to spurt away from rivals as he had in Kentucky and Maryland.

And so instead California Chrome becomes the 12th horse since Affirmed to have his Triple Crown bid thwarted by the circumstances and, probably most of all, the distance of the Belmont Stakes. The list has become long and the disappointment entrenched. Horse racing and frustration seem to have become bedfellows.

Because of that, some will argue that Saturday's outcome means the series should change and that there should be more time between the races, with the Preakness run in June and the Belmont perhaps in July. There could be a clamor for change. But that isn't what we should take away from Saturday's outcome at all.

More than anything, Saturday's Belmont Stakes should have reminded everyone that sweeping the Triple Crown is indeed a great achievement: winning three classic races, on three ovals, at three distances in five weeks. In no small way, Saturday's Belmont complimented the 11 Triple Crown winners, especially those three great horses of the 1970s -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. In the end, California Chrome simply wasn't good enough.

This 146th Belmont was, in many ways, an outstanding race, with several horses emptying all their power and energy and struggling to define themselves in victorious terms right down to the wire, where Tonalist put his head in front of Commissioner, completing the 1½ miles in 2:28.52, a very solid clocking. With five horses finishing within two lengths of each other at the wire, the race sent the needle on the excitement meter to the limit. But then Steve Coburn, one of California Chrome's owners, spilled his bitterness onto the scene.

"That's a coward's way out," he said, referring to the opportunity some have to join the series in progress or to skip one of the races and focus on another. Tonalist and Commissioner didn't run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. Only three horses competed in all three races this year, and on Saturday, Ride On Curlin was eased, General A Rod ran seventh and California Chrome finished in a dead-heat for fourth, with Wicked Strong.

"That's not fair," Coburn said, sounding rather childish, about the stressful demands of the Triple Crown. But, of course, it was fair for Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. And it wouldn't be fair to them to ask anything less of the next Triple Crown winner.

Coburn said only horses that qualify to race in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to run in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. That, of course, is nonsensical, for it would guarantee small fields at both Pimlico and Belmont Park. To change the spacing of the races would be terribly unwise; to allow only 20 horses eligibility for three of the most significant races in America would be imbecilic. And so, in the end, California Chrome wasn't good enough to win the Triple Crown, nor was one of his owners.

Horses don't race to gratify their connections or assuage hurt feelings. Horses don't race so that racetracks can make money or so that states can collect taxes. They race for no other reward than the chance to define themselves, and they race for the joy and pleasure of the fans. The next Triple Crown winner should have the opportunity to define his greatness in traditional terms, and the fans deserve to see the best racing and the most challenging series, with the best horses of a generation, that the sport can present.

While Coburn fulminates about the Triple Crown, some might blame California Chrome's rider, Victor Espinoza, for the defeat. He could have sent the flashy chestnut colt to the lead immediately. But the pace was reasonable, at 48.52 seconds for the opening half-mile, and to grab an early advantage California Chrome might have had to run too fast too early. He didn't have an early lead in either the Derby or Preakness. And Espinoza could have kept California Chrome near the inner rail, saving ground, rather than moving outside on the backstretch. But who can say whether they would have been able to get through at the top of the Belmont stretch? California Chrome went wide, lost by less than two lengths. With a better trip, yes, he might have won, but that's one of those infallible observations of hindsight. He just wasn't good enough.

Spectacular Bid's loss in the Belmont was stunning because he seemed virtually invincible and, coming immediately after Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the achievement seemed at the time so attainable. Alysheba's loss in New York might have been equally stunning, but largely because he lost so badly. Sunday Silence lost to a great horse in Easy Goer, and so their 1989 Belmont wasn't so much a disappointment as a chapter in an unforgettable rivalry. Real Quiet's defeat by a nose in 1998 was a blow to the belly since he appeared to have the race won. Smarty Jones' faltering in deep stretch produced a collective sigh from a crowd of more than 120,000, and that was probably the most disappointing Belmont outcome in recent years, until perhaps Saturday.

The sport needs many things, and a Triple Crown winner definitely isn't foremost among them. But such a horse, such an accomplishment, at least would have provided a rallying point and a feel-good moment. In the end, though, California Chrome was only good enough to remind everyone that sweeping the three races of the Triple Crown remains one of sport's greatest challenges.