LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Steve Coburn came to take his medicine. After going from horse racing’s favorite houseguest to one who seemed to overstay his welcome in the Triple Crown spotlight, the owner of California Chrome showed up at Churchill Downs with co-owner Perry Martin to face the music from fans.
And he faced it graciously, which is more than he could muster after his colt lost in its Belmont Stakes bid for the Triple Crown.
You know the stories, you’ve seen the video. Coburn called his opponents “cheaters’ and “cowards.” A day later, he was unapologetic, and made the unfortunate comparison of running against fresh horses in the Belmont to him playing basketball against kid in a wheelchair.
It took two days for him to finally apologize on national TV. But Coburn was contrite after he and Martin were presented with the engraved winner’s trophy for the Kentucky Derby.
He was booed — but he also was cheered. After a short on-track ceremony, he admitted to a bit of apprehension over what his reception would be.
“I was nervous — because of what’s happened,” Coburn said, "But then when I get here and I see all these fans and our followers. I got some boos. I deserved them. Thank you for the boos. But then, we've got a tremendous fan base. They love this horse. You can hate me all you want to. But don't hate my horse, because he's the real star. … It's all about the horse, not me."
Aside from his out-of-control ranting after the Belmont, Coburn made two points during this Triple Crown attempt that are worth revisiting one more time.
He criticized Churchill Downs on national television for not going the extra mile from a hospitality standpoint, and that the track could learn something from how Pimlico does it.
The Preakness is famous for going all-out for its horses and connections — in large part, because it has to. People just aren’t running in the Preakness anymore. It’s the Derby winner, and a bunch of also rans, in case a rare Derby horse wants to take another crack two weeks after the Run for the Roses — which is becoming increasingly less common.
The Preakness has fewer horses, which makes treating the trainers and owners right even easier.
But let’s not sit here and pretend that Churchill doesn’t have work to do in this area. This isn’t the ranting of some millionaire mad that he got the wrong color m&m’s in his bowl. Churchill has had this problem — and plenty of others.
Short fields. Increased takeout. Whatever the reasons, owners and trainers are staying away from the track in alarming numbers -- even if 21,671 showed up for Saturday's night racing card. I understand the hometown circling of the wagons when someone criticizes the home track, but amid the party and lights and music and revelry, the non-Derby portion of the home track’s schedule looks as if it’s being run into the ground.
So while I don’t think that the NBC post-race interview was necessarily the time or place for an anti-Churchill Downs rant, he’s not the first to get fed up in that area.
Second, Coburn has been making a point about the Triple Crown that many say deserves consideration — that letting fresh horses take on a Derby and Preakness winner in the Belmont isn’t fair.
I’ve thought about this a great deal over the past couple of weeks.
First, Coburn’s proposed solution is not acceptable. Every other Triple Crown winner has beaten fresh horses in the Belmont. You can’t limit the entries to the Belmont.
But beyond that, it seems to me that a change in the Triple Crown format might make the feat more difficult, not less. Would it be more fair to space the three races a month apart instead of into a five-week sprint. Probably.
But more fair doesn’t mean “easier.”
Right now, all a Kentucky Derby winner seems to need is a pulse and good health to win the Preakness. The two-week layoff seems to scare away most of the better Derby horses, and not many talented “new shooters” seem to be heading into the Preakness.
What the current set up does, in fact, is lend itself to giving the Derby winner a Triple Crown chance. You could back the Preakness up for a couple of weeks, sure. But then you’d have the Derby winner against many of the same horses he saw in the Derby when he reaches the Preakness, not just a few of them. That makes winning the Preakness harder, not easier.
The one tweak I’d be fine with is moving the Belmont back a week. A four-week layoff between Preakness and Belmont would give the Derby winner more time to recover, and to be ready for the task before him in the Belmont. There is precedent. Citation got four weeks between the Preakness and Belmont in 1948. I don’t hear anybody questioning his credentials.
Everybody has a little Coburn fatigue at the moment. But in becoming the sport’s main talking point, he foiled PETA’s efforts this season, and shook the dust off an old debate, though Triple Crown changes still ought to wait.