- Bill Finley
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This is America, so Steve Coburn, who along with Perry Martin formed Dumbass Partners and owns Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, has every right to have his say, even if his say came across as bitter and irrational. Maybe he doesn't care that he made a fool out of himself when he called good people who did nothing wrong "cheaters" and made things worse when he somehow came up with a bizarre and politically incorrect analogy comparing California Chrome's supposed disadvantage against fresh horses in the Belmont to kids in wheelchairs.
The real problem is that Coburn is taking what should still be a feel-good story down with him. Obviously you can't get mad at California Chrome, who, it appears, is smarter than his co-owner. Trainer Art Sherman, who is always humble and classy, also gets a pass. But do we really like California Chrome as much as we did before Coburn started running his mouth? Do we really want to see him front and center and winning important summer and fall races like the Travers and Breeders' Cup? I know I don't.
Yes, California Chrome is guilty by association, but guilty nonetheless.
In less time than it took for Tonalist to win the Belmont Stakes, Coburn and his mouth ruined five of the best weeks racing has had in a long time. We fell not just for the horse and his accomplishments but for the entire story, one that included these "regular guy" owners who parlayed the mating of a C-list sire and a cheap mare into a dream that stretched the boundaries of reality. We fell for Coburn's apparent folksiness. We cheered when he called out Churchill Downs, everybody's favorite whipping boy, for allegedly treating Martin poorly at the Kentucky Derby. We even got a kick out of the fact that he looks a lot like Wilford Brimley, because who doesn't like Wilford Brimley?
Now it turns out that the story, at least the part that involves Coburn, isn't as good as we thought. He is what we all hate, a sore loser.
It didn't have to be this way. When NBC approached him after the race, he should have been gracious, accepted defeat and congratulated Tonalist, owner Robert Evans and trainer Christophe Clement. After their horse won a classic race fair and square, it was what they deserved. If Coburn was so upset and frustrated that he knew he was ready to say something stupid, he should have declined the interview. On Sunday morning, he had his chance to make amends, and Sherman predicted that Coburn was going to apologize. Instead, Coburn jammed his foot even further into his mouth, a feat seemingly even more impossible than a modern horse winning the Triple Crown.
Had he done either, kept quiet or said the right things, we'd still love California Chrome, Triple Crown winner or not.
Coburn's complaints are baseless, and his idea that a horse must compete in each Triple Crown race to remain eligible for the next leg isn't worthy of debate. Trainers and owners have an obligation to do right by their horses, and some, like Tonalist, are coming off sickness or injury and shouldn't return to the track before they are ready. Tonalist's connections did everything by the book, the colt deserved to be in the Belmont field, and he proved it with his victory. Calling the winners cheaters and cowards is as low class as it gets.
No one has said where California Chrome is going to race next. Because he is so poorly bred, he probably won't be that much in demand as a sire, which makes it likely that he will stick around for a 4-year-old campaign if he doesn't get hurt. We haven't seen the last of California Chrome.
Going forward, it won't be the same. There won't be 100,000 people in the stands at his next race, and the national media will have moved on to something else. California Chrome will still have his fans, but not as many as before. Coburn took care of that.
In a perfect world, Coburn would issue a sincere apology or, better yet, sell his half of the horse. Don't count on either. At the very least, he should just shut up and go away. If nothing else, do it for the horse.
California Chrome's co-owner has a right to speak his mind, but that doesn't mean he should, Bill Finley writes.