I led my Belmont preview column by referencing Coburnâs remarks from this spring that an owner, who joined the Triple Crown grind late or took off the Preakness, was âcheating.â In the immediate aftermath of a crushing defeat, the co-owner of California Chrome resurrected this theme and took it a step further, labeling owners who donât run in all three Triple Crown events are âcowards.â
Itâs easy to be affable when things are going as well as they were for Team California Chrome this spring. How someone handles adversity is a more revealing sign of character.
Admittedly, this is a bit harsh. Coburn is a 10-pound bug to the highest level of racing and even more of a newcomer to dealing with the media, who love to pretend they are your friend until an opportunity to play âgotchaâ materializes. He doesnât have publicists to advise and protect him by telling him to shut up. So under normal circumstances, he deserves to be cut some slack.
However, with a night to sleep on his intemperate remarks and given ample opportunity to walk back what he said, if not outright retract them, he exacerbated the situation on Sunday. He compared what happened to his horse to a child in a wheelchair being taken advantage of by an adult. It was one of those moments when you cringe and go, âHe didnât really say that, did he?â
Someone with PR savvy must have finally gotten to Coburn. He issued an apology on Mondayâs âGood Morning Americaâ that should have been done when he had the opportunity the day before. He said he was ashamed of himself and did not mean to take anything away from Tonalist or his connections. It was so late, it reeked more of damage control than sincerity.
Dumb Ass Partners certainly is an appropriate name for at least half of California Chromeâs ownership team.
Coburn also showed a lack of understanding of racing and what the Triple Crown is. This is not the World Series, NBA Finals or Stanley Cup playoffs, a winner-take-all, four-of-seven series. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont are separate classic races, each a prestigious and lucrative prize in its own right. Owners and trainers are entitled to prepare their horses, or not, as they see fit.
If Coburnâs viewpoint had been the rule, the Preakness and Belmont would have been three-horse races, shams that few would have paid attention to. The NBC contract would soon be history.
Speaking of which, the TV ratings for the Belmont were the highest since Smarty Jonesâ Triple Crown attempt in 2004. Approximately 20.6 million viewers watched. This was more than three times the 6.4 million for the prime time Stanley Cup finals game between New York and Los Angeles, the nationâs two biggest markets.
The tune-in also was 50 percent higher than for the NBA Finals on Sunday in prime time--when more TV's are in use than any other night--featuring Americaâs love-them-or-hate-them Miami Heat. Not bad for a sport supposedly on its death bed.
California Chrome did not fall short of the Triple Crown because Tonalist was the fresher horse. He didn't come up short because there was an 11-horse field, more than any Triple Crown winner had to contend with. The Belmont now pays back to eighth place, so this is going to be the new normal.
He didnât lose because Victor Espinoza gave him a questionable ride. You have to admire the nerve of Randy Moss to take this stand, especially after Jerry Bailey more or less told him he didnât know what he was talking about. Baileyâs counter to Mossâ contention that Espinoza should have gone to the lead was that California Chrome already had a target on his back.
If California Chrome went to the front, he would have had several horses immediately taking shots at him, extending him sooner than would have been prudent. Isnât this what they said about Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones? But compared to Moss, what does Jerry Bailey, the greatest big race jockey of his generation, know about riding horses?
I canât say for sure but I doubt grabbing a quarter shortly after the start was a significant factor. Maybe it was adrenaline kicking in but California Chrome showed no sign of distress and looked to be making a winning surge in mid-stretch, more than a mile after the incident. Alas, he couldnât sustain it.
California Chrome became the 13th horse in 36 years to win the Derby and Preakness only to fall short in the Belmont for the same reason most of the others did. He was beaten by the Belmont distance and horses who could handle it better than he could.
He was right there after a mile and a quarter. He and Tonalist were almost side by side in mid-stretch. Tonalist went on. But with the race and the Triple Crown on the line, California Chrome started to hang, as horses whose tanks have been emptied do.
Tom Durkin, in his final Belmont, called it: âCalifornia Chrome is laboring late.â
Runnerup Commissioner is a nice horse but probably a cut below the very best. However, he has a Belmont winner top and bottom in his pedigree. He was particularly suited for the mile and a half. Show horse Medal Count hadn't hit the board on conventional dirt since his maiden win at Ellis Park. But being by Dynaformer, he, too, is bred better for 12 furlongs than California Chrome.
The distance is what beat him. Not three races in five weeks. I donât think itâs going too far out on a limb to say that at a mile and an eighth or even a mile and a quarter, California Chrome would beat Commissioner and Medal Count almost every time.
California Chromeâs connections said repeatedly he was coming into the Belmont bigger and stronger than ever. His workouts had clockers gushing. So even though I know Iâm spitting into the wind, could we please can the talk about changing the time frame of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont?
California Chrome wasnât going to beat the horses who finished ahead of him at a mile and a half if the Belmont was run on July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving weekend or New Yearâs Eve.
If something needs to be changedâI would argue vehemently againstâit is asking 3-year-olds who have never run a mile and a half, and probably never will again, to handle such a grueling route. But if the distance is diminished, so is the Triple Crown.
With more than a hundred thousand fans at each of the three races, TV ratings near an all-time high in an era when there are more viewing options than ever, the Belmont getting attention all week on the morning shows, the late-night gabfests and everything in between, and now the continuing attention thanks to Coburn, why would anyone in his or her right mind want to change anything?