Tuesday, June 10, 2014
The Rant That Could Rock Racing’s World
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 10, 2014—Is it safe to write now? Was Steve Coburn on the morning talk-show circuit again this morning, and I missed it somehow? If so, were there any more apologies?
I hope Yogi wasn’t been reading the sports pages these last few days. He’d be really confused after learning that it’s not over even when it IS over.
The entire civilized world has gone on record about what simply has become known as: “The Rant.”
There are several examples regarding the reaction to this issue that are particularly galling, not the least of which concerns the media:
Most national non-racing sports media, the kind that covers Triple Crown events, and just maybe the Breeders’ Cup, don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to horse racing.
For me, it’s like the old punchline to the old gambling joke: “What do I know about hockey?”
Mike Lupica weighed in, my hero, “Mr. Shooting From the Lip” himself. I don’t hold his disdain for racing against him. It seems his father was rumored to be an inveterate horseplayer when he was a child and he’s hated the sport for its gambling aspects ever since.
And that’s similar to two other sports enthusiasts; Mario and Andrew Cuomo. I wonder what ever became of their love of sports. They seldom, if ever, came to a big horse race in New York, including the Travers, an in-their-own-backyard event.
The current Governor was among the 102,000 in attendance at Belmont Park on Saturday. Then again, 2016 is right around the corner.
On the drive home from Elmont to Saratoga Monday morning, I checked in with Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts co-hosts of WFAN’s midday radio program, always a good listen for me.
But when Roberts said, in relation to The Rant, that it “wasn’t about the horse, it was about the money, the owner’s ego,” I nearly drove off the Cross Island Parkway.
Guess Evan didn’t hear the one about how Coburn and his partner Perry Martin turned down $6 million for a half-interest BEFORE the Kentucky Derby because it meant that Art Sherman no longer would be the colt’s trainer.
I broke for lunch and missed the first hour of the Mike Francesa show, in which he presumably talked about The Rant and The Race. The two to five o’clock hours were devoted to the anemic Mets and what later that night would turn out to be the equally anemic New York Rangers.
Francesa, introduced to the game by noted handicapper and professional horseplayer Paul Cornman, wears his love of horse racing on his sleeve. This comes in particularly handy when you need to secure your own box for big races at Belmont and Saratoga.
This is a man who rightfully deserves his reputation as a people’s champion, asking the tough questions to the biggest names in sports, yet somehow he’s acquired a strong taste for Thoroughbred racing’s particular brand of Kool Aid.
Seldom is heard a discouraging word, or a tough question, for that matter. Every Friday before the Belmont Stakes, he hosts arguably America’s most successful sports talk program from the clubhouse apron at Big Sandy, interviewing the biggest names in the game.
Before this year, that list included Joe Drape of the New York Times, who, with other journalists, has been placed on Thoroughbred racing’s persona non grata list for the tough stance he’s taken regarding medication and training methods, legal and otherwise.
But he wasn’t on the program this year due to what was being called a “scheduling conflict.”
It seems tough questions are OK for other sports, just not for this one.
Obviously, it took more than 24 hours to clear the fog of the Triple Crown wars from Coburn’s brain. Instead of apologizing on Sunday and belatedly tipping a cap to the winners, he doubled down and made his very indelicate basketball analogy.
Better late than never. As we wrote in our Belmont Stakes wrap Saturday evening, the man was exhausted, acting as if he was celebrating prematurely, this after being extremely generous and accommodating with his time for five weeks, notwithstanding another month between the Santa Anita Derby and the one held in Louisville.
One of The Rant’s great ironies is that, in some weirdly, insane fashion, might have kept horse racing above the fold for longer than 24 hours. A disappointing attempt to make history became a backstory to The Rant.
The other vexing aspect of the coverage is how duplicitous it is to celebrate a man for his colorfully brash and candid demeanor one day and destroy him for those same qualities the next.
While Sunday’s references were ignorant and tasteless, it remains an antidote to ultra-correct cliches. Contrarily, Monday’s apology appeared sincerely contrite, especially those to wife Carolyn, the connections of Tonalist, and “the whole horse racing world.”
I would wager that the overwhelming majority of those reading this know more about Thoroughbred racing history than the co-owner of a dual classics winner--on-the-job training in a good way. No disgrace, that.
But as was previously mentioned, there was a message that really needed hearing. Not references to “cheaters” or “cowards,” or Coburn’s confusing Triple Crown athletes with triathlon athletes.
Coburn is right when he says Triple Crown “means three.” Of course, that means three individual events, all worth winning on their merits.
The reality is that some Grade 1s are created more equal than others, especially the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, in that both are run at classic distances; the American classic distance of a mile and a quarter and the European classic trip of a mile and a half.
But the message that “this [Triple Crown] thing is unfair to the horses” strikes the right note in the age of permissive raceday medication.
Let’s forget for a moment that the Kentucky Derby prep schedule is an arduous playoffs road in which would-be Triple Crown aspirants must succeed or fail to qualify for a starting berth in America’s greatest racing spectacle, the gateway to a crown.
And let’s forget, too, that each of the 11 Triple Crown winners didn’t need to beat more than seven rivals, fresh legs or no fresh legs. In fact, let’s forget that all Triple Crown winners competed without raceday Lasix coursing through their veins. Let’s forget all of that and consider this:
The Hancock family has been breeding racehorses in Kentucky since the Civil War. Arthur Hancock III is one of the founding members of WHOA, the Water, Hay & Oats Alliance and dedicating himself to improving the breed.
Hancock has bred three classics winners; Gato Del Sol, the family’s first Kentucky Derby winner, the dual classics winner and unlucky Triple Crown aspirant, Risen Star, and dual classics winner and Horse of the Year Sunday Silence.
Hancock believes that Lasix has polluted the gene pool, citing that when he was a child in the 1950s Thoroughbreds averaged 45 starts per year. Today that average is 13, less than 29%.
Arthur owns Stone Farm in Paris, KY. with his wife, Staci. The Hancocks believe that these days you can’t know whether you’re breeding to a true champion or to a horse whose reputation was built on the use of raceday Lasix.
In the worthy historical reference “Champions” published by DRF Press in 2000, every divisional championship pre-1990 was won by a horse that raced without the legal diuretic. From 1990 forward, the overwhelming majority have.
Parenthetically, there are 14 Eclipse Award categories including Horse of the Year. In the last quarter-century, all but 31 champions raced on Lasix; six of those were European based and two others were steeplechasers.
There were juvenile champions in this group, but Flanders never raced at 3 and Boston Harbor had one start his Derby season. Female turf horses and female sprinters became segregated categories in 1979 and 2007, respectively.
Absent historical context, Carolyn Coburn believes that "our story has given so much to so many people and I hope 30 seconds doesn't destroy that.”
Americans are a forgiving lot when they believe you, and a man who admits to being “very ashamed” on national television is one without guile, the same man he was during California Chrome’s six-race win streak.
Coburn made the sports and racing world fall in love with a couple of “dumb asses,” their everyman trainer, and a very gifted race horse. They will all be just fine. They’re just in need of a very good freshening.
If only that were the cure for everything.
Written by John Pricci