NEW YORK (Reuters) - California Chrome's bid to complete U.S. racing's elusive Triple Crown ended in disappointment when he finished fourth behind Tonalist in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Ridden by Mexican jockey Victor Espinoza, California Chrome moved into contention down the final stretch but could not sustain his run and catch the flying Tonalist (9-1), who won in a thrilling photo-finish.
Commissioner, a 28-1 longshot, held on for second, beaten by just a head, after leading until the final turn while Medal Count (24-1) took third, a further length behind.
California Chrome (4-5 favorite) dead-heated with Wicked Strong (9-1) for fourth, sending the huge expectant crowd of more than 102,000 into a stunned silence at the realization that the long wait for a Triple Crown winner would continue for at least another year.
"Turning for home, I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before but today, he was just a little flat down the lane," said Espinoza.
"I think it was tough for him. He ran back-to-back races in different tracks against all those fresh horses."
Tonalist missed both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and showed the benefits of being fresh as he surged to victory in the 1 1/2-mile (2,400 meters) classic, the longest and most grueling races of the Triple Crown series.
"This is the Belmont, so this is great," said Tonalist's jockey Joel Rosario.
"(But) I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome. If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him."
Tonalist had been earmarked as one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby but was forced to skip the race after he suffered a lung infection and missed a key qualifier.
His connections set their sights on winning the Belmont and he emerged as one of the leading threats to California Chrome with a runaway win in last month's Peter Pan Stakes.
"I'm absolutely thrilled. It's wonderful," said Christophe Clement, the trainer of Tonalist. "He trained great, he looked great before the race. I'm absolutely delighted that he won.
"I wasn't sure he won. We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won."
After winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes last month, California Chrome was bidding to become just the 12th horse - and the first since Affirmed in 1978 - to achieve the rare feat, regarded as the ultimate challenge in American racing.
An unlikely contender who was bred by a factory worker and a scientist for just $10,500, California Chrome's fairytale success story endeared him to millions of Americans who were instantly captivated by his rags to riches tale and the prospect that he could be the chosen one to break the Triple Crown drought.
But it was not to be and instead of becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, he became the 12th horse since Affirmed to win the first two legs then come unstuck in the Belmont, which is known as the Test of the Champion.
His chances of winning were hampered at the start when he jumped out sideways and clipped the horse next to him, Matterhorn. When he returned to his stable after the race he had a small cut on his right front hoof.
"It's a long hard ride on these young horses and that's why the Triple Crown is so tough to win," said California Chrome's assistant trainer Alan Sherman.
"The horse tried, that's all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life and I'll always have that in my heart for that horse."
Part of the challenge for the potential winners is that not only do they have to race three times in five weeks on different tracks over distance distances, but often against fresher opposition, which infuriated California Chrome's co-owner Steve Coburn.
"This is his third great big race. These other horses, they sat them out and tried to upset the apple cart. I'm 61 years old and I'll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this," an angry Coburn told NBC.
"It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. I look at it this way, if you can't make enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby, you can't run the other two races.
"It's all or nothing. This is not fair to these horses who've been trying their guts out. This is a coward's way out. Our horse had a target on its back."
Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Gene Cherry