ELMONT, NY, June 7, 2012--In the final analysis, those were strong words coming from the disappointed co-owner of California Chrome, the horse that failed to make Triple Crown history.

California Chrome is a very good race horse and there have been plenty of other very good race horses that have failed to become immortals, as if that were some sort of equine shortcoming.

Steve Coburn, the owner who wears his heart on his sleeve and speaks with no filter, is a refreshing change in this age of ultra-correctness.

The words were indelicate, to be sure, but the message needing sending. After all, when it comes to the big picture, thoroughbred racing views its own world with blinkers on.

Coburn spoke of the meat grinder that is the Kentucky Derby prep schedule, a series of races demanding that horses reach near bottom so that they will have the conditioning needed to effectively compete at a mile and a quarter early in the three-year-old year.

Then those winners are put in history’s spotlight, a glare that brings with it the demand for an encore two weeks later. There is not another division that demands its best horses return to racing so quickly against more new rivals than old ones.

And, then, three weeks later, more new fresh challengers who waited on the sidelines in ambush of history. It is the right of bill payers to play the game the way they wish to play it, because “they’re doing what’s best for their horse.”

But for the best of those horses, the ones that traversed the Derby trail, the ones that were good enough to win the Derby and the Preakness two weeks later?

The cherry on top of that confection is to return three weeks later at a distance they won’t see again unless they race on grass or return for the following’s year’s Brooklyn.

Twelve furlongs is a trip for which no modern American-bred thoroughbred is suited by pedigree, especially with 20 years of legal, permissive medication flooding the gene pool.

In the heat of the moment, Coburn showed bad form in that he should have tipped his 10-gallon hat to the winner. His wife Carolyn stood behind her man during his nationally televised rant, at once seemingly embarrassed and offering advice of restraint.

He turned to her and appeared to mouth “I don’t care.” At that point it was clear that he was not thinking clearly but the message, however ill-spoken, however ill-timed, needed to be sent.

“I’m 61-years-old and I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this.

“It’s not fair to those horses that have been in the [Triple Crown] game from day one.

“If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby you can’t run [for the Triple Crown] in the other two races.

“This is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for [racing] and for the [fans] that believe in them.

“This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion.”

In the heat of the moment, Coburn never considered that owner Robert Evans and trainer Christophe Clement wanted to run in the Derby, but when Tonalist got sick before the Wood Memorial and missed that prep, his Derby run was out of the question.

Evans and Clement truly did what was best for their horse and, it turned out, in more ways than one. They decided on the Peter Pan/Belmont route. Obviously, it was a prescient call that puts them in position to vie for a championship should they run the late-season table.

In the post-race conference, Evans said “I have no comment on that” when asked to respond to Coburn’s remarks. “We love California Chrome, but we love our horse, too,” is all he would offer.

“Some people talked about how California Chrome failed,” said the gracious Clement. “He won the Derby and he won the Preakness and that’s great. When he worked [at Belmont Park] there were 500 or 600 people there to see him. That’s great for racing.”

In the five weeks since the Kentucky Derby, the California Chrome entourage could not have been more giving of themselves. They danced every dance to the point of exhaustion and, at the point that they had enough, they sucked it up and gave some more.

From about 9:30 a.m., about two hours before the first of 13 races, Coburn thanked an appreciative crowd who waved at him from the track apron. He took off his cowboy hat and waved back, making the crowd with their “Triple Chrome” banners even more supportive.

This love affair happened throughout the day, at least two or three more times between races. It lent itself perfectly to an electric atmosphere that fell with a thud as the Belmont 146 field passed the finish line.

The head victory by Tonalist over a remarkably game Commissioner was engineered beautifully by Clement, who labored to get his horse fit enough to go 12 furlongs, all while dealing with foot issues that required protective bar shoes during training hours.

He deflected concern earlier this week when he said “it was no big deal.” I would have to disagree, which only makes his accomplishment, and that of Tonalist, even more impressive.

As for California Chrome, he broke sideways coming out of the gate and bumped with Matterhorn. It was at that point that Art Sherman spoke off the record, saying that California Chrome might have hurt himself at the start.

“After we broke,” said Espinoza, “I could tell he was not the same like before. Before he’s running and he [takes] me right [into] the race, [he helps] me. Today I felt his energy was not like before. He was a little bit empty, I would say by the five-eighths pole.”

But, like before, he kept trying after entering the stretch five wide. In fact, it appeared that his pedigree deserted him a furlong from home but he kept trying, only he was being outrun at that point.

Espinoza eased California Chrome up two jumps from the wire, appearing to cost him a clear shot at fourth money, which he wound up sharing in a dead heat with Wicked Strong. Clearly, however, taking care of a very tired horse was the right thing to do.

In the clear light of day, it is hoped that, after a good night’s sleep, Coburn finds the time to tip his hat to the winners, who ran the best horse on the day. But his message about this series is right for the times and, more importantly, right for the horses.

The elder Sherman was not available for comment after the race, leaving those duties to Alan, his son and assistant.

“The horse tried hard,” said Alan Sherman. “It’s a long hard ride on these horses and that’s why the Triple Crown is so hard to win. The horse tried, that’s all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life.”

Grade 1 MANHATTAN

They just can’t keep good men down at Belmont Park.

First, Javier Castellano proved the difference in Coffee’s Clique’s narrow victory over Strathnaver.

Then, after getting all hot and dirty aboard Chad Brown’s empty trainee, Normandy Invasion, Castellano came back with a perfect timed score for Brown aboard Real Solution, taking the Grade 1 Manhattan by a length over Kaigun, with the Bill Mott trained Seek Again settling for third.

It was an odd event from the start as longshot Five Iron opened a 10-length advantage on the backside. As that was going on, Joel Rosario put Seek Again in position to take the first run on the eventual tiring leader.

But Seek Again was unable to sustain his rally into the stretch, which is where Castellano put Real Solution in the right spot to make his patented late run.

Real Solution has done that before but often has hung. But not yesterday as he wore down Kaigun inside the final furlong.

And when it was over, the ho hum of it was another victory by an offspring of Kitten’s Joy, another for 2013’s leading owners in America, Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

***

Close Hatches is all by herself... at the top of the filly and mare division.

In what should have been the filly race of the young decade but under the radar somewhat because (a) they’re fillies, and (b), they were running on the Triple Crown-bid undercard.

But when Close Hatches, Beholder and Princess of Sylmar lined up at the top of the stretch, a colleague leaned toward me and whispered: “Is this what you came to see?”

Yes, only, personally speaking, it would have been better had the photograph gone the other way.

With longshot Classic Point leading the way, the three “favorites” were biding their time, with Close Hatches having a tactical edge, in position to make the first run.

And run she did but, at once, Gary Stevens pressed the button on two-time champion Beholder and Javier Castellano likewise on Princess of Sylmar.

At the eighth pole, however, it became two-horse race and as Chic Anderson intoned 36 years ago, “we’ll test these two to the wire.”

And it was Close Hatches, in the role of Affirmed, Rosario subbing for Cauthen, and Princess of Sylmar as Alydar, Javier instead of Jorge, to the finish. And the photo went the same way:
Inside.

And, so, now, Close Hatches has finished ahead of the Princess three times, once again, reminiscent of Affirmed and Alydar.

Close Hatches now has a big leg up on the filly and mare championship, 3-for-3 on the year, including the Grade 1 Apple Blossom and yesterday’s Ogden Phipps.

The only disappointing aspect of the Big Three match-up, but this time, the champion couldn’t bring her racetrack with her.

But then the Breeders’ Cup Distaff is at Santa Anita again this year, right?

***

How sweet it was for trainer Leah Gyarmati, the second distaffer to saddle a winner on the best race card ever presented in New York.

It was particularly rewarding because something wasn’t quite right with her 3-year-old miss, Sweet Reason.

“After the Gazelle, I didn’t like how she was looking,” said Gyarmati. “Nothing major, probably just wear and tear from the winter. We just did lots of work on that, and lots of vitamins.”

Three-year-olds are a little young to be suffering from tired blood but there was none of that yesterday, Sweet Reason lowering her body in earnest to edge the Todd Pletcher-trained 34-1 Sweet Whiskey.

Pletcher also saddled the odds-on Acorn favorite but, after stalking the pace down the backside, she never mounted a serious challenge. Unbridled Forever, third, loomed briefly, but hung in the final furlong.


***

Javier Castellano has been riding the turf, whether it be Gulfstream, the New York tracks, and even Penn National, as if they were all in his own back yard.

Once again Castellano was the difference, but a little good fortune never hurts. Strathnaver started her rally in Queens while the rest of the field was in Nassau.

She finished like a rocket beneath Mike Smith and actually struck the front one jump before the wire. Losing by a bob of the head is one thing; losing on he re-bob of a head quite another.

Somali Lemonade was pressured throughout the one-mile Grade 1 and was remarkably game to even snag a piece of the Just A Game purse.

Excellent work by Canadian-based Brian Lynch, who trained his horse to the minute for yesterday’s event. Of greater import, perhaps, is that he was smart enough to name Castellano at time of entry.

***

One of the best races on the NYRA schedule each year is the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, best known as the Met Mile, an elongated eight furlong sprint in which horses run flat out from flag-fall to that’s all.

But the pace of Saturday’s renewal was moderate by Met Mile standards, 23 1/5, and Palace Malice, in the conversation for best older horse in America, was inside and not really going anywhere.

Johnny Velazquez was motivating him, maintaining his position, but when finally picked it up after entering the straight, he had nowhere to go.

But fortunately for last year’s Belmont winner, Johnny found a seam inside and up the fence went Palace Malice and ran away win in 1:33.56 for his fourth victory against no defeats this year.

Rarer still, he completed the True North/Met Mile double of Palace and Palace Malice.

No relation.

Goldencents made a worthy season’s debut, finishing an excellent second in a very deep field. The underrated Romansh finished a good third after chasing the pace wide throughout, but second favorite
Normandy Invasion never picked up his feet, beating only two of his 11 rivals.

Prototypical slot receiver Wes Welker finally gets a good payday with the well named Undrafted, taking the Grade 3 Jaiput under peerless rating and timing from Johnny Velazquez. As it turned out, he had the punch that the venerable Ben's Cat, looking for lifetime win #27 in his 40th start, lacked.

Marchman was a very good second, chasing a strong pace throughout, doing the dirty work at headstretch, but unable to withstand the winner, Ben's Cat checking in fourth.

The pacesetting Global Power stayed well cutting the pace, the 60-1 chance holding third and producing a $495 Dime Super with three logical rivals.

***

The Preakness as a prep for the 7 furlong Woody Stephens? Apparently, as Bob Baffert re-added blinkers, switched to Gary Stevens, who asked Bayern to take the lead at the 5-furlong pole, improving his position thereafter to win the Grade 2 by a short pole.

Odds of 9-1 certainly were fair on this crack sprinter, timed the distance in 1:20.75. Longshot Top Fortitude made a strong late rally for place beneath Mike Smith to complete the SoCal exacta.

***
Well, Joel Rosario won the first mile and a half race of the day from the outside post and he can only hope that history repeats..

Norumbega, as it turns out, wanted the mile and a half Brooklyn distance more than Micromanage.

The horse that ran too good to lose was Cat Burglar, chasing the pace for most of the 12 furlongs and was still there at the finish in a remarkably game performance, beaten less than a length, trying to match strides with the winner at the finish.

Two-twenty-seven and change, a pretty good go!

***

I know it was 8:25 when I entered the Plainfield Ave. gate of Belmont Park but the overwhelming impression was that the old ballpark looked great and NYRA seems prepared for whatever is to come. We shall see...

So, as Mr. Cub would say: The sun is shining, let's play 13.

Fast and firm, no portable rails up on either turf course.

The money showed early and late and Wabberjack too the opener; no discernable bias.

Linda Rice on a stakes roll; Palace yesterday, Kid Cruz today, with a powerful late run to take the Easy Goer. Good spot; very good effort.

Track looks honest. Both winners off the pace but in each case, the fractions were lively...