Commentary

A tactless tirade

Steve Coburn should have thought before he spoke after the Belmont Stakes

Updated: June 8, 2014, 11:42 AM ET
By Steve Davidowitz | Special to ESPN.com

So, the fairy tale story of California Chrome ended at Belmont Park on Saturday with a dead heat with Wicked Strong for fourth in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes. This was not the Triple Crown sweep so many were expecting to see.

His venerable trainer, Art Sherman, was just as disappointed as the colt's legion of fans, as was veteran jockey Victor Espinoza. But there was one notable person connected to California Chrome who probably should have covered his mouth with a breathing strip or walked into a private soundproofed room before he conjured up the forces of evil as having conspired against his classy colt.

I am talking about co-owner Steve Coburn, who could not restrain himself from spitting out sour grapes to so many who previously had admired his friendly, aw-shucks demeanor.

Having witnessed California Chrome's failure to end the 36-year drought of Triple Crown champions, Coburn was caught by the NBC television cameras pouring tears into his hat. For a brief moment, he pointed to the same thing most of us saw.

"[California Chrome] was gaining ground, but he didn't have it in him, apparently," Coburn began. "You know what? This is his third very big race."

And so ended Coburn's best reasoned reaction to the defeat as he shifted direction faster than his colt's move from being trapped along the rail to the extreme outside turning into the stretch:

"These other horses, " Coburn added, "they always set him out and try to upset the apple cart. ... I'll never see -- and I'm 61 years old -- another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this."

As most of us know, there always is a "they" when something does not work out as hoped. Coburn knew exactly who his "they " was, in this instance.

"It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one," he continued.

"If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby you can't run in the other two races, " he argued.

Never mind that the freedom to enter 3-year-old racehorses in individual Triple Crown races has been the way similar top races are filled, all over the world for more than a century.

"It [should be] all or nothing," Coburn added with noticeable anger. "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. This is a coward's way out, in my opinion. This is a coward's way out."

A few minutes later, Coburn stepped up his attack, pointing specifically to the owners of Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, who was making his Triple Crown debut on Saturday.

"They're a bunch of god-damned cheaters," Coburn told a credentialed reporter. "Without the points to run in the Kentucky Derby, he shouldn't be able to run in the Triple Crown. They're god-damned cheaters."

Oh, really?

The gospel according to Coburn says it is unethical, unfair -- even an act of dishonor -- for an owner or trainer to set his horse up for his best chance to win a Triple Crown race by planning to bypass the Kentucky Derby and/or Preakness.

Coburn might feel that way and so might many people who empathize with the way this Triple Crown series ended with a tired California Chrome adding his name to the 12 other horses who won the Derby and Preakness in the past 36 years but failed to win the "Test of the Champion" at Belmont Park.

Yeah, let us all heed the wisdom of Steven Coburn as he was railing against the blueblood meanies who had conspired against California Chrome. Let us change the rules of Triple Crown racing so that we can shrink the number of horses fit enough to run in all three races.

Let us still allow 20 in the Derby, but maybe half that many in the Preakness and then let us insist that any horse that runs in the Belmont must also have run in the Derby and Preakness. That should ensure future Belmont fields of four, five or six horses.

If we do that, we can look forward to the Belmont becoming a good public workout for far less than $1.5 million while perhaps 20,000 fans will bother to attend instead of the 100,000-plus who were at Belmont Park on Saturday.

While we make these changes, perhaps we can convince NBC to still carry 16 hours of live TV coverage while the most meaningful series of races on earth is reduced to something worth 20 minutes of airtime on an obscure cable outlet.

Coburn, I think, actually believes that California Chrome faced a bunch of horses that were in the race to unfairly gang up on him, taking his terrific racehorse out of his best game. "Exactly," he said. "Our horse had a target on his back."

Coburn was revved up now by his own rhetoric. So the disappointed co-owner of the horse who had become so popular through his Triple Crown run completely misunderstood what took place in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes.

By any reasonable examination of this historic 1½-mile classic, some blame for his colt's subpar performance involved jockey Victor Espinoza.

First, Espinoza made a calculated decision about six seconds into the contest that backfired. Despite breaking smoothly and given a chance to take the lead comfortably without much stress or strain, Espinoza eased Chrome back behind the unexpected frontrunner Commissioner, a relatively unaccomplished, well-bred colt who eventually would finish a close second.

California Chrome after the 146th Belmont Stakes.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCalifornia Chrome came up short in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
While there is no guarantee a frontrunning strategy would have led to Chrome's victory, Espinoza's decision made it tons more difficult. Given his tentative first decision, the jockey -- who had been aboard for Chrome's six straight wins -- then elected to keep the colt inside and behind two others. This strategic choice left him trapped and needing an opening that never would materialize.

Realizing his quandary approaching the far turn, Espinoza did angle California Chrome to the four path outside of three rivals, which wasted valuable energy that would not be there when Espinoza asked Chrome to rally down the center of the track in the final furlong.

Said Espinoza, "He got a little tired. ... Turning for home, I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat down the lane."

In other words, it can be argued that Espinoza strategically contributed to the horse's defeat. Beyond that, Coburn should realize -- and I hope he does when he has a good night's sleep -- that he and all of the people connected to California Chrome have been on a magic carpet ride, the likes of which rarely have been seen in horse racing.

Coburn in particular has used the notoriety gained from his horse's performances to point the finger at Churchill Downs for their handling of horsemen during Derby week. While Churchill might well deserve such criticism, Coburn also has stated how grateful he and his partner, Martin Perry, have been to "everyone" while the carpet has taken them to the biggest stages in the sport.

Should Coburn come down to earth now, maybe he will realize how foolish, how unkind, how distasteful his conspiratorial criticisms were.

I sure hope Coburn comes to his senses, because California Chrome -- a classy horse if we have ever seen one -- did not deserve such a classless display of excuses. Tonalist was better on Saturday, so, too, were Commissioner and the third-place finisher, the fresh and fit Medal Count, who had a world of traffic trouble throughout the race.

Moreover, the last time I looked, Coburn and his partner were leaving Belmont Park with more than $3.5 million in career earnings and two of the most coveted trophies in the game.

Should this horse remain healthy, it also is hoped that Coburn and his partner will use the next few months to "freshen him up" so they can meet Tonalist and other top performers down the road. Or, perhaps racing should follow Coburn's lead and insist that California Chrome run in three specific races between now and the Breeders' Cup, or forfeit his chance to compete.

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