06/07/2014 8:47PM

Tonalist denies California Chrome's Triple Crown bid in Belmont

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Barbara D. Livingston
Tonalist (center) and jockey Joel Rosario beat Commissioner by a head in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

ELMONT, N.Y. – The Triple Crown elevator still stops on the 11th floor.

California Chrome could not end a 36-year drought of Triple Crown winners Saturday, when he finished in a dead heat for fourth in the 146th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park behind the victorious Tonalist, a late-developing colt who did not run in the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness Stakes.

For at least another year, Affirmed, in 1978, remains the last and 11th Triple Crown winner.

California Chrome, the 4-5 favorite, entered the Belmont with a six-race win streak, including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. His Triple Crown quest, combined with a sensational undercard and gorgeous weather, attracted an overflow crowd to Belmont Park.

California Chrome got away alertly but then sat behind horses from the first turn until the final turn, when he swung out four paths wide to make his run. But he did not have the same acceleration he showed in the Derby and Preakness, a sign that the Triple Crown trail had taken its toll in the final quarter-mile of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

“He was just a little bit empty today,” said Victor Espinoza, who rode California Chrome.

California Chrome came back with a cut on his right front foot.

Tonalist ($20.40) closed best in the stretch under jockey Joel Rosario and caught 28-1 shot Commissioner in the final jumps to win by a head, with Medal Count, a 24-1 shot, another length back in third.

Tonalist, whom Christophe Clement trains for owner Robert “Shel” Evans, completed 1 1/2 miles on the fast main track in 2:28.52.

California Chrome and Wicked Strong finished in a dead heat for fourth, nearly two lengths behind Tonalist.

Samraat was sixth and was followed by General a Rod, Matterhorn, Commanding Curve, Matuszak, and Ride On Curlin.

General a Rod and Ride On Curlin were the only horses besides California Chrome to run in all three Triple Crown races. California Chrome ran the best of those three.

After the race, Steve Coburn, who is the co-breeder and co-owner of California Chrome with Perry Martin, said on NBC’s telecast that Tonalist being able to enter, and win, the Belmont without running in the first two legs of the Triple Crown was “the coward’s way out.”

“It’s not fair to horses who have been in the gate since Day 1,” he said, referring to the Derby.

At a post-race news conference, Evans declined to comment on Martin’s rant.

Tonalist was making just the fifth start of his career. After losing his lone start at 2 in November at Aqueduct, he was sent to Florida for the winter, where he won a maiden race Jan. 18 before finishing second in an allowance race to Constitution, who subsequently won the Florida Derby.

Tonalist became sick before an intended start in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April and sustained a foot bruise, all of which took him out of consideration for the Kentucky Derby. Clement pointed for the Belmont and used the Peter Pan Stakes here May 10 as a prep. He won, then trained sharply coming into the Belmont. He trained in bar shoes before the Peter Pan and the Belmont, but those were replaced with conventional shoes for both races.

“It’s a great win. It’s great for the team, for the staff, for the owner, Mr. Evans, who believed in us,” said Clement, who was winning his first Triple Crown race. “I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s wonderful. He trained great, he looked great before the race. I’m absolutely delighted that he won.”

Tonalist earned a first prize of $800,000 from a gross purse of $1.5 million.

Tonalist, who started from the outside post in the field of 11, was on the outside in third a half-mile into the race, the pace of 48.52 seconds surprisingly set by Commissioner, with General a Rod closest. Commissioner continued to lead through fractions of 1:12.84 for six furlongs, 1:37.13 for one mile, and 2:02.43 for 1 1/4 miles.

::2014 BELMONT STAKES: Recap, video, chart, and more

California Chrome, four paths wide coming off the turn, appeared to get closest to the leaders at the top of the stretch but could not make a sustained run through the lane. Tonalist, however, closed resolutely, no doubt helped by the power of Rosario, the game’s best finisher.

“I kept him outside the whole way,” Rosario said. “He’s a big horse. That helped him going a mile and a half. Big horse, keeps on going. That’s why I didn’t want to be on the inside.”

Tonalist is a colt by Tapit out of the Pleasant Colony mare Settling Mist. Evans purchased him privately at the Saratoga yearling sale in August 2012 after he failed to bring his reserve price in the ring.

“He’s 17 hands. He’s a great, big boy. I liked that his grandfather was Pleasant Colony,” Evans said.

Evans’s father, the late Thomas Mellon Evans, bred and raced Pleasant Colony, who won the Derby and Preakness in 1981 but was third in the Belmont. He was the second of what are now 12 horses who, since Affirmed, have won the Derby and Preakness and failed in the Belmont. Another horse, I’ll Have Another, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2012 but was retired before the Belmont.

“This is very satisfying,” Evans said. “Yesterday, I went to my father’s grave and thanked him for putting me in a position to do this.

“It’s very satisfying. My brother,” he said, referring to the late Edward Evans, “also was a great owner and breeder. Now they’re both gone, so I have to fill their shoes if I can.”

Evans has a name similar to the chairman and chief executive of Churchill Downs, Robert L. Evans. Asked if they are ever confused, Evans replied, “I don’t like the association, and I’ll leave it at that.”

He does, though, like being associated with Clement.

“After the Peter Pan,” Evans said, “he had four weeks to get ready for this, and Christophe had him just right.”

– additional reporting by David Grening