California Chrome's Owner Rants About System
As darkness descended on Belmont Park on Saturday evening, the passing of the past 24 hours amounted to more than just a day.
It brought Thoroughbred racing into a new year.
It's a 37th year, which will arrive on Jan. 1, and, as the prospect of it came into view on Saturday, it so enraged the outspoken co-owner of California Chrome, Steven Coburn, that he called some of the rivals "cowards" in an emotional outburst on network television.
In the aftermath of California Chrome's bitterly disappointing, co-fourth-place finish in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes and Coburn's equally bitter outburst, an industry and its fan base saw hopes of celebrating the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years wilt like LeBron James in the stifling heat of the AT&T center in San Antonio.
A massive crowd that filled almost every inch of Belmont Park expected to see the California-bred horse win as comfortably as he did in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and provide the electricity last generated by the likes of Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (1977) and Secretariat (1973) in the 1970's.
But the magic that was so dazzling at Churchill Downs and Pimlico never materialized as a 13th horse since 1978 won the first two legs but not the third. California Chrome stalked the early leaders from the outside like he did in the opening two legs of the Triple Crown, but instead of surging to the front on the turn, he ran as if he was on a treadmill, perhaps bothered by grabbing a quarter as he left the gate, a report trainer Art Sherman gave some reporters.
"When he came out of the gate, I knew he was not the same," jockey Victor Espinoza said.
Less than two lengths behind the front-running, 28-1 shot Commissioner at the quarter pole, California Chrome came up empty in his date with destiny. The 4-5 favorite was five wide in a closely packed string of five horses at the top of the stretch, all of them grouped within a length of each other, and it seemed certain one of them would emerge from the fray as the victor. But as Espinoza tried in vain to coax a burst of speed out of his tiring colt, it was Tonalist ($20.40) who came up with the strongest kick and prevailed by a head over the game Commissioner with Medal Count a length back in third and California Chrome three-quarters of a length behind him, locked in a dead heat for fourth with the 5-1 second choice Wicked Strong.
The loss silenced much of the crowd, but not Coburn, who vented on NBC about a system that he labeled as unfair to his horse.
"This is a coward's way out," Coburn said. "I'm 61 years old, and I'll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this. It's not fair to the horses that have been in the game since day one. If you don't make enough points to run in the [Kentucky] Derby, you can't run in the other two races. It's all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people who believe in them.
"Our horse had a target on his back, and everyone else ... won't run in the Derby and Preakness. They wait until the Belmont ... The 20 that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 [that should be] eligible to run in all three races."
For Coburn, the rant against the structure of the Triple Crown was nothing new. He offered similar comments -- minus the "cowards" part and the tinge of sour grapes -- after his colt's win in the Preakness, at which only two of his 18 Derby rivals showed up at Pimlico.
Those same two horses -- General A Rod (seventh) and Ride On Curlin (pulled up in the stretch and didn't finish) -- turned out for the Belmont, but the top three finishers in the mile-and-a-half classic included two horses making their Triple Crown debut (Tonalist and Commissioner) and a horse who had not raced since finishing eighth in the Derby.
"I actually think it would be better to spread it out a little better," Evans said. "It's better for the horses and better to promote it. Racing has a problem in that it doesn't believe in marketing or selling itself, and it should do more of that. The time wouldn't do any good if racing didn't promote itself."
Clement did not comment directly but let his feeling be known on the matter by offering words that seemed in contrast to Evans and Coburn.
"If you make it easy," Clement said, "it's worth nothing."
And so, before a 37th year of the Great Triple Crown Drought officially arrives, the debate about the Triple Crown format figures to rage. Pimlico president Tom Chuckas ignited the controversy a couple of days after the Preakness by declaring his track wanted to see the Preakness contested in June and Belmont in July.
How Churchill Downs and, more importantly, the New York Racing Association feels about all this remains to be seen, but, more now than at any other point, the more than three-decade gap between Triple Crown winners has spawned an atmosphere in which calls for change have become the rage.
You hear it from track officials, and on Saturday, you heard it from a very disgruntled owner.
Whether that will sway the three partners in the series remains to be seen. From a business standpoint, the 2014 Triple Crown was a smashing success, with the third-highest attendance at the Derby, a record crowd at the Preakness and 102,199 at the Belmont.
But on Saturday night, more than anyone's comments, what hovered about the Triple Crown was the gloom generated by the arrival of a new year.
The 37th year.