ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — California Chrome trainer Art Sherman expected co-owner Steve Coburn to come out and apologize for calling trainers and owners who run horses in the Belmont without running in prior Triple Crown legs “cowards” during an NBC interview and “cheaters” when speaking later to Yahoo! Sports.
That’s not exactly how things went down.
Coburn did appear Sunday morning to talk to ABC’s Good Morning America, a day after his colt lost a Triple Crown bid to Tonalist in the Belmont Stakes. But Coburn wasn’t there to apologize.
“I think I’m just going to stand by what I said,” Coburn said.
But he was only getting warmed up. His message has been that if a horse doesn’t qualify for the Kentucky Derby, he shouldn’t be eligible to run in any of the Triple Crown races.
“You might compare this to a triathlon,” Coburn said in his GMA interview. “You know you've got to swim and you've got to bicycle and you've got to run. … You don't make it to run if you're not going to do the other two.''
“That would be like me, at 6-2, playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair,” he said in a later interview with ESPN. “They haven’t done anything with their horses in the Triple Crown. There were three horses in this race … that ran in the first two, none of the other horses did. So you ask yourself, would it be fair if I played basketball with a child in a wheelchair?”
Coburn has several problems. First, and biggest: He’s way out of line. Beyond a poorly chosen analogy, he has every right to make his point about the Triple Crown rules — and to his credit he was making it long before his colt lost, in the week leading up to the Preakness Stakes. But calling people “cowards” and “cheaters” crossed a line.
Tonalist didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes because his trainer didn’t deem him fit to run. He had a lung infection that kept him from acquiring the points needed. Fear or skirting any rules didn’t play into it. The Belmont Stakes is a Grade I stand-alone race worth $1.5 million dollars. If you have a horse who qualifies, you can run in it.
Billy Gowan, trainer of Ride On Curlin, one of three horses who ran in all three legs this year, was asked if he’d enter a horse in the Belmont if it hadn’t run in the Derby or Preakness. His answer, “Yes, if I thought I had a chance to win.”
Woody Stephens is a legend around these parts. He won five consecutive Belmont Stakes from 1982 to 1986. Two of those Belmont winners didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.
Which brings up a second problem for Coburn. History. The fact is, no more than a handful of horses are going to run all three races in any given Triple Crown year. In fact, only two did it in the years that Secretariat and Affirmed won the Triple Crown. No Triple Crown winner has ever faced more than two Belmont competitors running in their third leg of the group.
The Triple Crown, as a series, was not set up for horses to win it. In fact, it was named after the fact and awarded to the first few who already had.
Better horses than California Chrome have come close and lost. Better horses than him, I’m thinking about Point Given, for one, and Risen Star, didn’t even get the chance because of bad luck in the Kentucky Derby.
Yes, the Triple Crown is a set. But the races are autonomous. They can’t be subject to condition. They’re going to take the best 3-year-olds they can get.
You can argue, and Coburn and Sherman and many others are, that there won’t be a Triple Crown winner under these conditions, because that’s not how horses are run anymore. The debate already is on.
But consider this about the series. If you re-space the races, put four weeks between each one, it’s quite possible that the Triple Crown will get harder to win — not easier. More quality horses will show up for the Preakness, and even more for the Belmont. The fields will be full in every race, every time.
As it stands, a quality Derby winner isn’t likely to have much trouble in the Preakness, because most of the better Derby starters lay off, given that running back in two weeks is rarely done anymore.
The system as it has evolved seems built to get the Derby winner to the Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown. And isn’t that what the sport wants and needs more than anything? The anticipation and speculation about the feat?
Finally, Coburn now has a problem of perception. He hijacked the goodwill of his horse and its accomplishments by giving the winners of the race contempt rather than congratulation. It’s all right to be ticked off. But sometimes, the other guy is just better. Other trainers work hard. Other owners take risks.
The front page of the New York Post screamed, “Triple Clown.” Reaction from other trainers was predictably negative.
“Extremely disappointing,” Nick Zito called it. “The game is bigger than everyone, certainly bigger than Steve Coburn. We all put our faith in his horse and in that camp and he showed great heart but didn’t get it done. But this is disappointing.”
Coburn has made his point. But he lost the public relations race this morning when he didn’t apologize for calling his competitors cowards and cheaters. At the very least, he needed to back off those words. They’re hurting his larger argument. And they took attention from the wonderful streak his colt put together.
Trainer Kenny McPeek told ESPN all the positive exposure California Chrome brought the sport “has now been undone. … He turned what was a Cinderella story into a nightmare.”
Even Coburn’s own trainer, Art Sherman, said, “It’s not what you should do in these type of races.”
Perhaps Coburn would’ve come off his “coward” comments if pressed more. But those of us from the media waiting for him to finish with his network TV interviews never got that chance. He turned, a security guard said, “no comments,” and Coburn said, “I’ve said everything I wanted to say. Google it.”
Here’s something Google might not tell you, but a 77-year-old trainer will.
Sherman knows, racing will break your heart. Bad luck, injury, they happen at the most inopportune times. Stay in it long enough, and it will humble you. “Don’t forget he’s a fairly new owner,” Sherman said. “… He hasn’t been in the game long, hasn’t had any bad luck.”
The bad news for Coburn, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with the first colt produced by his new racing operation, candidly named “Dumb Ass Partners,” is that it gets worse. Coburn asked repeatedly, is it fair for rested horses to face one running for the third time in five weeks?
No, it’s not fair. But this is horse racing. Nothing is fair. Was it fair when Affirmed or Seattle Slew or Secretariat or any of the others won the Triple Crown?
California Chrome is the best 3-year-old in the country. But does he belong in the conversation with Secretariat? Affirmed? Seattle Slew? Count Fleet, Whirlaway, War Admiral or the others?
I don’t think he does. I did not think he did before the Belmont.
When will we have another Triple Crown winner? When a colt comes along who does belong on that list.