A Triple Crown champion with Valley roots? It turned out too good to be true.
All the hope and excitement that had built up behind the historic bid by Harris Farms-bred California Chrome -- trying to become the first horse to pull off the sweep in 36 years -- came to an unfortunate crescendo Saturday in Fresno and across the nation.
More than 1,200 people at the Tatarian Grandstand at the Fresno Fairgrounds, crowding around more than 65 televisions, watched as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion foaled in Coalinga finished in a deadheat for fourth in the Belmont Stakes. Another 250 watched at Club One Casino's Polo Lounge & Event Center, with Tonalist pulling off the upset in the 1½-mile race in Elmont, N.Y.
Four to five dozen people huddled around each TV at the fairgrounds, which along with Club One offers satellite wagering. Among them was Michael McFall, 54, of Fresno, who was pulling for Chrome "because of the historical aspect of it all and the Harris Farms connection."
"I feel the same as everybody here," he said. "We were all hoping the little guy could do it."
Chrome backers, some of them true fans, others looking to make a little money even with the horse a big favorite at 4-5, displayed differing post-race emotions.
"California Chrome, you're still worth more than gold!" one yelled.
Another said, "Well, this sucks" as he tossed his losing ticket into the trash.
One man expressed the obvious as he headed to the exit, "There's not a lot of victory cheers in here."
One fan at Club One threw his hat at the big screen.
The Tatarian Grandstand surpassed its attendance levels from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by 1 p.m., said Ruben Gastelo, the satellite racing manager.
For the first two legs of the Triple Crown, an estimated 650 caught the races there.
"This horse brought a lot of different people from the Valley together," Gastelo said.
Gastelo added The Big Fresno Fair staff still plans to honor the horse come October, but he would not reveal any details.
Racing fans started filling up available spots at Club One hours before the start of the race, said employee Erin Cathcart.
"This place would've gone crazy. This place would've erupted if California Chrome won it," Cathcart said.
Joe Dobbs of Fresno felt confident that Chrome would be the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
"Real big day," he said before the 3:52 p.m. post time. "This guy is going all the way. He's active and ready to go. As far as the other horses, they looked tired and done."
Tonalist (9-1) and runner-up Commissioner (28-1), like many others in the 11-horse field, didn't race in one or both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Hanford resident Wes Alewine cited that as a major factor after the race -- as did California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn in a angry post-race interview, saying that entering the Belmont without running the previous two races is "a coward's way out."
Said Alewine, who's 68 and moved from Texas in 1980: "He's ran that many races in that short amount of time."
"I figured he would finish second or third; didn't bet him to win. I had the 11-5-8 (Tonalist-Ride on Curlin-Commissioner). I had the 11-8 in there and didn't box them, and I usually box my horses. You've got to get a horse that's come in at 25-1 or something like that and bundle it on your bet.
"There was no money to be made (betting on odds-on favorite California Chrome), but Californians are going to bet California horses and everybody did. Too bad it didn't happen. There was too many rested horses, and a number of horses that could've beat him, and as you can see, he came in fourth in the 'heat.
"He's an amazing horse."