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A shade more than three hours before California Chrome flamed out in his quest for the Triple Crown and his owner got to talking, and talking and talking, a poignant moment of sincere sportsmanship unfolded at Belmont Park far away from the cameras and the glare of the spotlight.

Bill Mott was making his way up the tunnel toward the interview room in the Belmont basement, glowing over the winning effort of Juddmonte Farm's Close Hatches in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes when a voice to the side got his attention.

"Hey Bill. Hey Bill," the call came out.

Mott stopped, wheeled around and saw who it was calling out.

"Congratulations, great race," said the man, Ed Stanco.

The two talked briefly, exchanged handshakes and compliments. The Hall of Fame trainer of the unwavering winner and the owner of the tough-as-nails runner-up. Then it was over, Mott went off to answer questions from the press about Close Hatches, undefeated in three starts this season and perceived by many before the race as the third best of the heavyweight trio that defined the $1 million Phipps. Stanco stayed where he was, flanked by two other men sporting some of the same purple and light blue of the King of Prussia Stable colors, Princess of Sylmar caps and buttons. Then he spoke.

"You got the race you expected," Stanco said, talking about the race that arguably was the best collection of horseflesh on the afternoon.

The 102,199 that came out got to see a thrilling finish between Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar, Antipathy, two-time champion Beholder and Belle Gallantey. They were separated by 1 3/4 lengths at the finish, Close Hatches a head better than Princess of Sylmar. (Watch the Ogden Phipps)

"That was world championship stuff," Stanco said.

He was disappointed no doubt, finishing second isn't what he got involved in racing for, but he accepted the outcome. He was probably able to accept it better because the last time Princess of Sylmar, Close Hatches and Beholder were in the same race it didn't turn out that way whatsoever.

That race was the 2013 Breeders' Cup Distaff, on Beholder's home turf at Santa Anita Park, and the 2012 champion 2-year-old filly locked up the 3-year-old crown with a no-doubt 4 1/4-length win over Close Hatches. Princess of Sylmar, like California Chrome later on in the Belmont Stakes, never for a step looked like a winner and came home last of six.

Stanco and trainer Todd Pletcher later admitted that maybe they tried to get one last good race out of the filly who already gave so many other good ones during the year. They were applauded for the sporting gesture of bringing the filly - winner of the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama over 3-year-olds and the Grade 1 Beldame over defending two-time champion older mare Royal Delta - out West to try and win the title. It didn't work out and they regrouped.

Princess of Sylmar came back and prepped for the Phipps with an easy win in a small stakes at Aqueduct in early April. Close Hatches came from a different path, two tough races that she made look easy with victories in the Grade 2 Azeri and Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.

So the first two - and the rest of the field for that matter - came from different places before winding up at the same place. Well, almost the same place. As mentioned earlier, Close Hatches was a head in front when it counted most.

Like it or not that's how racing is set up, horses make races and horses miss races. It's the horses that truly make the plans and oftentimes they miss more races than most people realize.

Christophe Clement and Robert "Shel" Evans were thinking Kentucky Derby with Tonalist about the time California Chrome was really only thought of as one of the top California-breds never mind classics contenders. He'd won his last two in state-bred competition, but wasn't even favored when he won the California Cup Derby in late January.

Meanwhile Tonalist ran in what is now the key race of the pre-Triple Crown season - finishing second to eventual Florida Derby winner Constitution in a late February allowance-optional at Gulfstream. Fourth that day was eventual Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong.

The Wood Memorial was going to be Tonalist's final Derby prep until the big son of Tapit changed those plans.

"He was sick before the Wood Memorial, we couldn't run him in it," Evans said from the same interview room Mott was headed for earlier in the day. "So we couldn't run in the Derby [and] aimed for the Peter Pan. Christophe Clement did a good job of getting him ready and he surprised me.

"It wasn't a very nice day [in the Peter Pan], there were thunderstorms, lots of rain and a muddy track and he just galloped. That's the clue he was a good horse because he was only three-quarters fit so we had four weeks to get ready for this and Christophe had him just right."

The first five finishers in the Belmont - Tonalist, runner-up Commissioner, third-place finisher Medal Count and dead-heat fourth-place finishers California Chrome and Wicked Strong - were also separated by 1 3/4 lengths at the end of the 1 1/2-mile journey. Same as the Ogden Phipps earlier in the day, with one more in the mix.

What unfolded afterwards was anything but similar, however.

Steve Coburn, half of the ownership duo of California Chrome with Perry Martin, went off when the cameras and microphones were in his face immediately after the race. The clips were aired and now re-aired over and over on sports and non-sports news programs nationwide, casting the man celebrated for his down-home, country-boy straight-forwardness before the race as a sore loser.

Coburn said it was the "coward's way out" to win the Belmont after not racing in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He said it wasn't "fair" for new shooters to come in and spoil the Triple Crown. Plenty of people out there who agree with him on that point, perhaps thinking that fairness and sportsmanship in racing are one in the same. He later apologized, going on ABC's Good Morning America with Robin Roberts and saying he was "very emotional" and promising "I'll do better."

Evans knows pretty well how Coburn, California Chrome's other connections and people who believed racing "needs" or "deserves" a Triple Crown winner to somehow put the game back in the immediate psyche of the American public.

Evans was at Belmont almost 33 years to the day earlier when Pleasant Colony, a homebred colt campaigned by his late father Thomas Mellon Evans' Buckland Farm, lost his chance at a Triple Crown sweep in the 1981 Belmont Stakes.

Pleasant Colony won the Derby by three-quarters of a length and the Preakness by 1 length, setting up his bid to sweep the Triple Crown. The feat was pulled off three times in the last 11 years - by Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed - and nearly a fourth time by Spectacular Bid.

Pleasant Colony missed out when he lost the Belmont by less than 2 lengths, finishing third behind Summing and Highland Blade. Those two came from different paths than Pleasant Colony, the winner fresh to the Triple Crown after victories in the Grade 3 Hill Prince and Grade 3 Pennsylvania Derby and the runner-up coming off a well-beaten sixth in the Preakness.

Shel Evans was classy in victory and declined to comment on Coburn's comments when pressed. He did discuss Pleasant Colony and his understanding of how the losing connections feel after missing out on such a monumental opportunity.

"Yesterday I went to my father's grave and thanked him for putting me in the position to be doing this," he said. "I came in 1981 to the Belmont, we had high hopes for Pleasant Colony. I've been where Steven Coburn's been and it's not fun when you don't win.

"It was very quiet after he didn't win. He was a wonderful horse. And it's very satisfying to be able to make up for that. My brother (Ned) was a great breeder and owner and did really well in the business, and so did my father, and I've kind of tagged along behind them, but now they're both gone and I feel I have to fill their shoes, if I can."

Watch the Belmont Stakes.

Equibase chart of Belmont Stakes.

Steve Coburn's interview on NBC after the Belmont Stakes.

Steve Coburn's apology on ABC's Good Morning America Monday morning.

 

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