Tonalist, who raced outside California Chrome down the backstretch, went on to win with a grinding run through the final sixteenth. Commissioner led and held on for second, a head behind, with Medal Count third.
California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, moved to contention at the top of the Belmont Park stretch, bidding to become the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
But in his third race in five weeks -- and trying the once-in-a-lifetime 1 1/2 miles -- the modestly bred colt didn't have enough left and faded to finish in a dead-heat for fourth, disappointing a huge crowd that had been chanting "Go, Chrome Go," long before the horses took the track.
Victor Espinoza, who rode California Chrome, said when he moved his colt to the outside for the stretch run, "he just didn't have that today."
Joel Rosario, the winning rider, said Tonalist was "just picking 'em up and picking 'em up" through the stretch run. He won for the third time in five career starts.
Tonalist and Commissioner both passed up the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Medal Count finished eighth in the Derby and skipped the Preakness.
"They took the coward's way out," said California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, as he watched Tonalist enter the winner's circle. "If you can't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races," he said, angrily.
California Chrome, he said, "had a target on his back" and the outcome of the Belmont proves there will never be another Triple Crown winner under the current system.
Winning owner Robert Evans declined to comment.
There have been many proposals to change the structure of the Triple Crown, including spacing the races further apart. The only meaningful chance implemented recently, however, was the Churchill Downs-imposed "qualifying points" system that determines which 3-year-olds can start in the Derby. There are no such restrictions on the Preakness or Belmont field.
California Chrome would have been the first American Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Since then, a dozen 3-year-olds had won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, only to either come a cropper in the 1 1/2-miles Belmont or not even make it to that climactic race. The son of Lucky Pulpit became the unlucky 13th in that line.