Tonalist — who didn't run the Kentucky Derby or Preakness — was the winner by a nose. But it was California Chrome's run we were watching, and the 4-5 favorite finished a close fourth.
The horse from dusty north-central California and humble heritage would've been the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and the first California horse in history to win one. He also would've ended the event's longest drought in history, which just got one year longer.
Chrome started clean and glided over to the rail out of the gate, but traffic started to build around his right flank early. Jockey Victor Espinoza stayed in the stirrups for most of the backstretch, saving some of the chestnut-colored three-year-old's blazing speed for the end.
By the time Espinoza released, the three-wide lead horses sealed him off. With the race more than half over, Espinoza was forced to try his horse's waning luck on the outside of the front pack.
California Chrome caught up to the leaders, going four-wide even as he took the long way around the final turn. Looking like he might have a chance, Espinoza got on the whip — but on the final stretch his horse flagged ever so slightly, the compounded wear of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the weeks before.
That wear and tear also had California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn sowing sour grapes. He complained immediately after the race that some of the competing horses, which didn't run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, had been entered just to knock out his underdog bid with the horse from nowhere.
"It's all or nothing," he said to a live television feed. "This is not fair to these horses and to the people that believe in them. This is the coward's way out."
It was a comment directed at Tonalist, whose last start was May 10 at the Belmont track, and hadn't raced before that since March. But that's exactly why the Triple Crown has become one of the rarest and most difficult achievements in sports.