ELMONT, New York — For five weeks leading up to Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, Steve Coburn was the picture of amiability.
The Stetson-wearing, working-class co-owner of California Chrome, Coburn and his aw-shucks attitude won the hearts of racing fans and the public from Long Island’s Queens-Nassau line to Chrome’s Southern California home track as his horse made the unlikeliest of runs toward Triple Crown glory.
On Saturday at Belmont Park, however, we saw a new, bitter side of Coburn, whose genial nature gave way to a truly surly disposition in a matter of 2:28.52, as 9-1 underdog Tonalist closed his way to a Belmont Stakes victory that never saw California Chrome pose a true threat, ending yet another bid for racing’s most elusive title.
Approached by NBC television reporter Kenny Rice moments after the race, in which Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth alongside Wicked Strong, Coburn uncorked a biting evisceration of the state of horse racing, placing blame on the process and the competitors — but not his horse — for Chrome’s disappointing lap around the storied Belmont oval.
“Well, I thought he’d stand his ground, but he didn’t have it in him apparently,” a clearly frustrated and emotional Coburn said to a national audience of millions. “You know what, he’s been in three, this is his third very big race. These other horses, they always sit them out. They sit them out and try to upset the applecart.”
At that point in the interview, Coburn had only dipped his toes in the water, but soon enough, he was splashing all over the place.
“I’ll never see — I’m 61 years old, and I’ll never see in my lifetime another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this,” Coburn continued. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day One. I look at it this way: If you can’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races.”
When asked to clarify his stance, Coburn then doubled down, essentially arguing that Chrome was playing against a stacked deck, while placing an indictment on all but two other horses in the Belmont field.
“It’s all or nothing,” he said. “Because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people, and for the people that believe in them, to have somebody come up — this is the coward’s way out, in my opinion. This is the coward’s way out.”
Beyond Chrome, only Ride on Curlin (11th place out of 11) and General A Rod (seventh) had run in both the Kentucky Derby on May 3 and the Preakness Stakes on May 17. The Kentucky-bred Tonalist was making his debut in this year’s Triple Crown, his only other race since Feb. 22 coming in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10.
Second-place finisher Commissioner, eighth-place Matterhorn and 10th-place Matuszak were also running in their first Triple Crown race of the year, and third-place Medal Count hadn’t run since the Derby, a distinction shared by Wicked Strong, sixth-place finisher Samraat and ninth-place Commanding Curve.
Whether that’s inherently unfair is certainly up for debate — and certainly it will be discussed at great lengths by those in racing circles for some time to come — but Coburn, in one last-ditch jab before he rides off into the Topaz Lake, Nevada, sunset, made clear his opinion on the matter.
“Yes, exactly,” Coburn told NBC when asked if he thought the rest of the field was coming after Chrome. “Our horse had a target on its back. Everybody else lays out one, or they won’t run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. They’ll wait ’til the Belmont.
“You know what, if you’ve got a horse, run him in all three. If you’ve got a horse that earns points to run in the Kentucky Derby, those 20 horses that start the Kentucky are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. This is the coward’s way out.”
After a seething takedown like that, Coburn may find it hard to get in touch with any friends he thought he made in what can be an elitist thoroughbred racing arena over the last few months. And many might argue that Coburn, in blaming anyone but his horse or his jockey, is living up to the “dumbass” in his ownership group’s “Dumbass Partners” name — if only behind closed doors.
While Coburn may come off like some mix between a sore loser and a comical pro wrestling heel in allowing himself to lose so ungracefully, there may also be some merit in discussing his claims — something the “cowards” around Tonalist were unwilling to do after playing spoiler to California Chrome’s dream run.
When asked what he thought about Coburn’s claims that it was unfair for his horse to jump in for the final race of the Triple Crown, Tonalist trainer Christophe Clement offered up a shrinking “no comment.”
Tonalist’s owner, Robert Evans, said he thinks it would be better to “spread (the Triple Crown) out a little bit” for the sake of marketing the races, but deflected a question about whether it would make winning the Triple Crown easier with a vague and ominous, “I don’t know, things change in the world.”
“If you space it out more, then I’m not sure you actually make it easier, because things change through the year,” the trainer Clement added. “I’m not sure, I’m not sure.”
Now before we get carried away about whether California Chrome was running uphill against a field rolling downward, make no mistake: California Chrome did not run his best race, and there’s a strong case to be made that he didn’t deserve to win, regardless.
Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman declined to speak to the media at large, but reportedly told Mike MacAdam of the Schenectady Daily Gazette that Chrome had struck the side of one of his front feet with a rear foot during the race. He also started out at the front of the pack before dropping back, which may not have been ideal positioning for a horse that won the first two legs by starting in the middle.
Mostly he was tired, a different horse from the one who thrilled us in the Derby, then gave us hope that this could finally be the year after his win in the Preakness — something his jockey acknowledged after the Belmont sand had settled.
“I feel like California Chrome, he was not the same like before,” Victor Espinoza said. “That’s why I make my decision to wait a little longer. … Today, I feel like his energy — he was not the same like before.”
And maybe the biggest shame of all is the way California Chrome went out — not necessarily in losing fashion, which in some ways seemed likely, if not probable, but in a cloud of controversy kicked up by his once-beloved owner.
After the race, Chrome’s assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, called the horse’s run “the ride of my life,” and Espinoza called Chrome “one of the best horses” he’s ridden. Some of the other losers commended California Chrome, with Dale Romans, trainer of Medal Count, concluding: “It’s about being around greatness, and California Chrome is greatness.”
Unfortunately, all anyone will ultimately remember about California Chrome’s unlikely quest to join racing’s immortals will be the acrimonious way in which his outspoken mouthpiece handled defeat.
It’s a bad look for a sport that is dying fast enough without its biggest current star, and while another horse may someday salvage it with the Triple Crown win Coburn promised he’ll never see, it’s a regrettable way for a truly fascinating sport’s time in the spotlight to end.
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