I promised myself not to write this particular column, but I realized that it was inevitable that I write it when a long time horse worker friend from the prehistoric days of my usually unwilling attendance in high school and I had words over the outburst from Steve Coburn after the Belmont.
I find it interesting that now, a couple of days after all the buzz and twitter has died down, Mr. Coburn is being hailed as a person who has put his finger on an existing problem. Gee, who knew? This three race agenda exacts a tremendous toll on the horses that are entered into those races. Leaving the last, longest race open to fresh horses puts the odds of a triple crown winner further into the stratosphere. And we needed someone to explain that to us?
It also needs to be said that horse health is judged objectively from the outward appearances of the horse and not from the point of view of a speaking entity that can say, "Dang, I still seem to have a little soreness in my back and my right hock feels a bit odd."
Remember, if you are a young, well fed horse that is kept stalled except for exercise in hand, under saddle or by being ponied for a set time, you will probably be so high on just getting out that you won't show a little bit of an "ouchiness." And then, well, you sort of get used to it, if it is only a little bit of soreness and not actual pain.
I am not now and to my knowledge have never been a stall kept young horse but I know first hand that it is easy to get used to pain. If you are a horse that is wired for 220 and has been bred to run fast enough to injure yourself, if you are being stall kept and fed mega-vitamin feeds and if your working minutes are monitored carefully to keep you at that racing edge, you probably aren't going to show that you are only very slightly off even to the finest grooms and trainers that money can afford. If you ask an honest trainer or groom this they will probably admit that this is why they get gray hair.
Christine Brennan, who writes columns on national and international sports issues for USA Today, and is also a commentator for ABC News, PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio says this, "The winner of the third leg of the Triple Crown was Tonalist, who was far more rested than Chrome after sitting out the Derby and the Preakness. The last anyone saw of Tonalist, he was winning the Peter Pan Stakes right here at Belmont Park on May 10."
So a horse that could hardly have been fresher takes on a horse that grinds through the first two legs of the Triple Crown, not to mention the travel from Louisville to Baltimore, to, finally, New York, and beats him?
How is this fair? Name another sport that allows such foolishness? You either participate in a season, or a series, or you don't.
And how is this a good thing for horse racing, to allow the Belmont field to be so stacked against the winner of the Derby and the Preakness that the best and most exciting thing that can happen in this sport is becoming unattainable?"
I also have to say that when Steve Coburn said that the folks at our own Preakness knew how to treat company and that the KY Derby people could take a lesson from us we didn't all shout the man down. We were pleased then as I recall. I'm not making a lot of it, you know, I'm just sayin'. All of which proves nothing but that Mr. Coburn is a man who speaks his mind and lets the chips fall where they may.
In all of that Belmont Stakes folderol, the only person with whom I took issue was the sports announcer (we can let him be nameless) who said that Chrome's jockey, Victor Espinoza, should have 'driven the horse on' there at the end. The announcer said that Espinoza just let him 'lose ground'. That man might have driven a car in his life but I can't believe that he has ever driven anything made of flesh and blood. Chrome's finish, while fourth-place in the Belmont, was still within about 3 lengths of the winner. And, as it turns out, the horse was running with a cut hoof. This is the sort of judgment that should be left to those who understand it in the moment.
If there is someone who ought to be embarrassed about comments at the Belmont, I know who it is and it isn't Steve Coburn.