1 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux

Victor Espinoza waves to the crowd aboard California Chrome (2) after 2014 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist went on to win the race, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown victory.

2 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux

Victor Espinoza aboard California Chrome (2) rides past the finish line during the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist went on to win the race, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown victory.

3 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Posters supporting California Chrome's bid for the Triple Crown litter the ground at Belmont Park after the horse finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

4 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Florida Today, Craig Rubadoux

Victor Espinoza aboard California Chrome (2), left, rides during the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist went on to win the race, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown victory.

5 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Gail Kamenish

California Chrome with Victor Espinoza up, heads off the track after finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Sunday, June 8, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

6 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

California Chrome assistant trainer Alan Sherman, right, shakes hands at Belmont Park after his horse finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

7 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Exercise rider Lee Vickers pets California Chrome after he finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

8 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

California Chrome trainer Art Sherman walks near a barn at Belmont Park after his horse finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

9 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

California Chrome walks back to the barn with a cut on his front right hoof after finishing fourth in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

10 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

California Chrome with Victor Espinoza finishes fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

11 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Garry Jones

California Chrome trainer Art Sherman, right, walks in the barn area at Belmont park after his horse finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

12 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Peter Morgan

Tonalist, second from right, with Joel Rosario up, goes nose to nose with Commissioner, right, with Javier Castellano up, as California Chrome, second from left, with Victor Espinoza up, lags behind during the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist won the race with Commisioner coming in second.

13 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

California Chrome, center, is flanked by Wicked Strong, left, and Tonalist, right, as they run down the backstretch during the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist went on to win the race, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown victory.

14 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

California Chrome (2) heads to the far turn trailing Commissioner (8), General A Rod (10), and Tonalist (11) during the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist went on to win the race, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown victory.

15 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

California Chrome, far left, runs near Tonalist (11) and Medal Count (1) down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Commisioner is at right and General a Rod (10) and Samraat are at rear.

16 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Tonalist (11), ridden by jockey Joel Rosario, edges out Commissioner (8), with Javier Castellano up, to win the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. California Chrome (2), the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner and ridden by Victor Espinoza, finished fourth. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

17 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

California Chrome, second from left,, runs in traffic behind Tonalist, left, and General A Rod (10) and as they head down the backstretch during the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist went on to win the race, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown victory.

18 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Victor Espinoza waves as he rides California Chrome after finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes horse race, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

19 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Peter Morgan

Tonalist, second from right, with Joel Rosario up, goes nose to nose with Commissioner, right, with Javier Castellano up, as California Chrome, second from left, with Victor Espinoza up, lags behind during the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race Saturday Elmont, N.Y. Tonalist won the race with Commisioner coming in second.

20 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Shannon Flannigan of the borough of Brooklyn in New York wears nasal strips at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y. Race horse California Chrome, who also wears nasal strips, is favored to win the Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown at the park later in the day.

21 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, left, signs a hat tossed to him by an autograph seeker before the Belmont Stakes horse race Saturday in Elmont, New York.

22 of 22

Buy Photo

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Edwin Collazo, of the borough of Brooklyn, in New York, wears a hat paying tribute to favorite California Chrome before the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 7, 2014, in Elmont, N.Y.

We love fairy tale stories. They're simple. Straightforward. And they make us feel good.

Like pizza. And beer.

But they're rarely a reflection of real life.

Tragedy, on the other hand, portrays a protagonist's success -- often coupled with excessive pride or hubris -- followed by The Fall.

Like it or not, tragedy raises a much more accurate mirror to our collective human face than does any child's fairy tale.

The Cinderella story that was California Chrome ended Saturday at this impressive racetrack in Elmont, N.Y. when the charismatic, chestnut-colored colt finished in a dead-heat for fourth place. Tonalist, owned by Robert S. Evans, trained by Christophe Clement and ridden by jockey Joel Rosario, was the clear victor.

The conclusion of this passion play didn't quite rise to the level of Shakespeare. But it also didn't end well for the high-flying protagonists, Chrome's Stetson-wearing co-owner Steve Coburn and his team of trainers, groom, jockey, exercise rider -- and the huge numbers of friends and fans who had attached their hopes to Coburn's dream to capture the elusive Triple Crown.

It would have been a Cinderella story for the ages, had the fairy tale come true. But it didn't. And because we're not children, we can chalk it up to the vagaries of fate, the mathematical uncertainties that are inherent in horse racing or even systemic unfairness that may indeed be built into the traditions of this troubled sport.

But what we don't do -- in the midst of our defeat -- is neglect to give credit to the winner in his moment of glory. What we don't do is deflect blame and point fingers.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what Coburn did.

"This is a coward's way out, in my opinion," the 61-year-old former Bakersfield resident said into the cameras just minutes after the heartbreaking loss.

And as is his habit, he repeated those words for emphasis.

"This is the coward's way out."

Exactly 24 hours earlier, at his hotel in Garden City, he told me and another journalist precisely what kind of performance he expected from his beautiful, young colt.

"A winning performance," he said. "A winning performance."

Mr. Coburn, it's not good form to guarantee victory one day, and then, when it doesn't materialize, blame it on others.

"Our horse had a target on his back," he said. And then he used the C-word again. For emphasis.

It was not Coburn's best moment. Who was it who said one's character is exposed not in victory, but in the agony of failure and loss?

I'm not exactly sure, but I think it was Mom. And Dad. Teacher. And Priest.

That's not to say Coburn doesn't have a point. He makes arguments that other well-respected experts are making.

His horse, the still-great California Chrome, had to run more races this year than some others in the field Saturday at Belmont Racetrack. Including the winner, Tonalist.

Let's look at the numbers:

Saturday's race represented the sixth start for Chrome this year. There's no doubt, he's been a workhorse in 2014. And that is probably too many races for many of today's thoroughbreds.

But he wasn't the only one. Four other horses competing in Saturday's Belmont Stakes were on their sixth race or more. And two of those, Commissioner and Medal Count, earned second and third place, respectively.

Should owners who hold back their horses in the Preakness, for example, be penalized or even banned from running in the Belmont Stakes as potential spoilers?

Maybe. There are strong arguments on both sides.

Should the three legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes -- be spread out over more than a five-week period?

Probably.

But that's for others to hash out.

My point is this: Coburn may well be right. But the way he comported himself after the race was childish and petulant. Parents across America surely turned to their children following the big man's rant and transformed it into a teachable moment, a what-not-to-do moment.

Maybe more importantly, the bitter ending to this fractured fairy tale cannot and must not negate the great heart and immense talent Chrome and his team have exhibited throughout the year.

I've been in New York for four days covering this story. And one error by one overwrought owner cannot ruin it.

Nor can this single mistake ruin Coburn's reputation. A public apology would go a long way in demonstrating the kind of sportsmanship his colleagues and competitors deserve. Are you listening, Steve?

Finally, my last word is this:

If ever we were in danger of ceasing to believe in dreams; if our advances in science or the modern flood of data has made us prone to cynicism; if the wealth of our digital lives -- sometimes at the expense of the personal -- has made us more likely to sneer at belief in the impossible, or even the improbable; a 3-year-old chestnut colt with roots in the soil of the San Joaquin Valley may have saved us, at least for a while.

California Chrome, a thoroughbred owned not by Kentucky royalty or a bazillionaire from New York or Kuwait, but by working people of modest beginnings, may not have achieved the ultimate dream of winning the Triple Crown, but he may have taught us how to dream again.

And for that, I'm thankful.