The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. California Chrome's loss extended the longest drought without a Triple Crown champion.
Three tough races in five weeks proved too demanding for California Chrome, who was sent off as the heavy 4-5 favorite by tens of thousands packed into Belmont Park on an 80-degree day, hoping to see history. Affirmed remains the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978.
The raucous crowd was silenced when it became obvious that California Chrome lacked his usual punch in the stretch.
Jockey Victor Espinoza realized long before then that his chestnut colt wasn't up to the grueling 1 1/2-mile trip around the track's sweeping turns.
"As soon as he came out of the gate, he wasn't the same," Espinoza said.
Tonalist was a fresh and rested horse making his debut on the Triple Crown trail. He last ran and won the Peter Pan Stakes on the same Belmont dirt on May 10.
That irked California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, who had said after the Preakness that horses should be required to run in all three Triple Crown races.
"It's all or nothing," he said. "This is not fair to these horses and to the people that believe in them. This is the coward's way out."
Before the race, Coburn told CBS News correspondent Alexis Christoforous that he'd be going back to his day job Tuesday regardless of the outcome.
Tonalist beat Commissioner, another newcomer to the Triple Crown, by a head. Those two horses finished in the same order in the Peter Pan. Tonalist ran the distance in 2:28.52 and paid $20.40, $9.60 and $7.
Commissioner returned $23.20 and $13.20, while Medal Count was another length back in third and paid $13.20 to show.
Samraat was sixth, followed by General a Rod, Matterhorn, Commanding Curve, Matuszak and Ride On Curlin.
California Chrome broke quickly but was pressed immediately by Commissioner and General a Rod. Espinoza eased California Chrome back into third along the rail.
Approaching the final turn, California Chrome was maneuvered to the outside. He angled four-wide turning for home, just to the outside of Tonalist, who was close to the pace the entire race. Espinoza started whipping left-handed in the lane but California Chrome had no response.
"I thought he was gaining ground, but he didn't have it in him, apparently," Coburn said.
Tonalist joined the growing list of Triple Crown spoilers, making California Chrome the 12th horse since Affirmed to lose his Triple try in the Belmont, the longest race in the series.
Trained by Frenchman Christophe Clement and ridden by Joel Rosario, Tonalist was making just his fifth career start.
"We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won," Clement said. "It was great."
The defeat snapped California Chrome's six-race winning streak. His rise from a humble pedigree and his working-stiff owners resonated with sports fans who rarely take an interest in horse racing.
California Chrome's owners spent $8,000 on a mare they bred to a stallion for $2,500, and were called "dumb asses" by a trainer for buying a mare who gave no indication that she could produce a standout offspring who could run fast.
Conditions seemed aligned for the Triple Crown drought to end. California Chrome seemed to thrive during his three-week stay at Belmont Park. His chestnut coat gleamed and he gained weight after the Preakness on May 17. His owners, trainer and jockey oozed confidence. And so did the bettors, who made him the overwhelming favorite in the Belmont.
But this fairy tale didn't have a happy ending.
Espinoza lost his second chance at a Triple Crown. He was aboard War Emblem in 2002, when that colt stumbled at the start of the Belmont and lost all chance.
Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome, had said beforehand that his colt didn't need to win another race because he was already such a pleasure to be around.
Coburn, who with Perry Martin formed Dumb Ass Partners to race their one-horse stable, had vowed that California Chrome "would go down in history."
It just wasn't the kind they wanted to make.