By Tim Sullivan
Steve Coburn is the dinner guest who criticizes the cooking. He is the nouveau riche newcomer, the instant expert, unfailingly generous with unsolicited advice. He is racing’s answer to Al Czervik, the Rodney Dangerfield character in Caddyshack.
All mouth. No manners.
The boorish blowhard who owns part of California Chrome watched his colt’s pursuit of racing’s Triple Crown end in an uninspired dead heat for fourth place in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Then, as has been Coburn’s custom, he made matters immeasurably worse with a bitter, combative rant on national television.
“These other horses, they always set ’em out,” Coburn said. “They set ’em out and try to upset the apple cart. I’m 61 years old and I’ll never see in my lifetime — I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this.”
Coburn objected to the common and long-standing practice of fresher horses being held back, as if in ambush, to challenge the winner of the Kentucky Derby in his subsequent Triple Crown starts. That point has been made previously, and it is a point worth pondering, but Coburn damaged both his cause and his colt’s feel-good story when he referred to rivals’ strategy as “a coward’s way out.”
His disappointment was understandable. His petulance and his presumption, however, were embarrassing.
Winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown does not entitle a rookie horseman to rewrite the rules of engagement. It does not give him the same leverage a champion boxer wields in choosing his opponents and dictating the terms of a bout. It affords him only an outside chance at immortality, an opportunity to pursue a goal so difficult it has been achieved only 11 times, and not since 1978.
When Steve Coburn guaranteed that California Chrome would complete the Triple Crown in recent days, he did so fully aware of what other horses were entered in the Belmont and how long they had rested between races.
He had to know, for example, that Tonalist, the Belmont winner, had raced only once between February 22 and Saturday’s starting gate — in the May 10 Peter Pan. For Coburn to register harsh complaints about facing fresher horses in defeat and in the wake of his own brash boasts was a sign of either supreme arrogance or acute amnesia.
The argument to add more time between Triple Crown races, formally advanced last month by Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas, is deserving of discussion. Though Triple Crown traditionalists cling to the five-week span between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont as a defining characteristic of the challenge, modern training methods favor longer layoffs for elite thoroughbreds.
Since eight of the 10 horses California Chrome faced Saturday had not raced as recently, it is reasonable to believe the favorite entered the race with more cumulative wear and, therefore, a competitive disadvantage.
Yet the way to deal with that disparity is to revisit the format after the heat of the moment has subsided, when immediate frustration has had a chance to ferment and impartial analysis can be brought to bear.
Suggesting that rivals are “cowards” for rationing their racehorses instead of subjecting them to the same grueling grind as the only horse capable of winning the Triple Crown is neither diplomatic nor constructive. It is liable to close minds that might have been open to change.
“It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day One,” Coburn said of those entries that had not competed throughout the Triple Crown. “If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races.”
He said “can’t.” He meant “shouldn’t.”
“It’s all or nothing,” Coburn continued. “It’s all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion. This is a coward’s way out.”
This is the sort of vent you would expect from a spoiled child. It was unworthy of the fine horse called California Chrome.
Tim Sullivan is a columnist for The Louisville Courier-Journal