By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - California Chrome failed in his bid to join racing royalty on Saturday, and his disappointed co-owner said winning horse Tonalist's owner had taken "the coward's way" by not running the first two Triple Crown races.
The chestnut colt, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, finished fourth at the Belmont behind 9-1 shot Tonalist, who did not run the opening two races of the series.
Afterward, California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn took some of the luster away from his horse's brilliant bid for history by slamming Tonalist owner Robert Evans for laying in wait at the grueling Belmont Stakes.
"This is his third great big race," said an emotional Coburn after the 1 1/2 mile Belmont, the longest test of the Triple Crown for three-year-olds. "These other horses, they sat them out and tried to upset the apple cart.
"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."
Evans, Tonalist's owner, said he would have "no comment" on Coburn's remarks.
"We loved California Chrome, we hoped he would win the Triple Crown, but we love our horse too," said Evans.
California Chrome was bidding to become the 12th horse and first since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown races and join an exclusive club that includes such famed horses as Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Citation and Secretariat.
"It's all or nothing. This is not fair to these horses who've been trying their guts out," said Coburn.
"This is a coward's way out. Our horse had a target on its back."
The co-owner laid out his vision of how the Triple Crown series should be managed.
"If you've got a horse that earns points to run in the Kentucky Derby, those 20 horses that start the Kentucky are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races," he said.
"This is the coward's way out."
Belmont runner-up Commissioner, who lost by a head, also did not run the first two Triple Crown races, and third-placed Medal Count skipped the Preakness after finishing eighth in the Derby.
Only three horses in the 11-horse field ran the entire Triple Crown series, including Ride On Curlin', who finished dead last at Belmont.
"California Chrome was just a little empty today," his jockey Victor Espinoza said. "I noticed something as soon as he came out of the gate. He was not the same. By the 5/8ths pole he was just empty.
"I think it was tough for him running back to back races and different tracks against fresh horses."
California Chrome was near the front throughout the race but never mounted a charge, lacking the acceleration he had showed in the first two races.
A crowd of more than 100,000 packed Belmont Park on a brilliantly sunny, warm day for what they hoped would be an historic Triple Crown.
An unlikely champion who was bred by factory worker Coburn and scientist Perry Martin for just $10,500, California Chrome's fairytale success story endeared him to millions of Americans.
The expectant crowd seemed to sag with disappointment when California Chrome failed to put on a winning stretch run.
Even winning jockey Joel Rosario sounded let down.
"I'm a little bit upset about California Chrome," Rosario said. "If I was going to get beat, I wanted to just get beat by him."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Gene Cherry)