ELMONT, N.Y. — California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn spent the past five weeks captivating America with his folksy charm and a shoot-from-the-hip style that seemed refreshing until he shot himself in the foot on Saturday.
Instead of expressing his great pride in a low-budget horse that captured the imagination of the nation and nearly became the first horse in 36 years to win horse racing's Triple Crown, Coburn blasted the format that forced his horse to face several Kentucky Derby rivals who rested through the Preakness and crowned a new Belmont Stakes champion who had not run since May 10.
He called the strategy "a coward's way out" during a nationally televised interview that wasn't folksy or charming. He repeated the assertion he made after Chrome's Preakness victory that if his horse did not win on Saturday he would never see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime unless the format of the series isn't drastically changed.
Coburn might be right. There are plenty of influential racing people who want to change the format to lengthen the intervals between the races, and it probably is going to happen because there really isn't a great argument against it. California Chrome's anti-climactic loss probably helped make a stronger case for change, but Coburn's emotional outburst was ill-timed and unfortunate because it detracted from both an exciting upset victory by Tonalist and the good feelings Chrome has engendered for the sport over the past five weeks.
"This is his third very big race," Coburn said. "These other horses, they always set him out. They set him out and try to upset the apple cart. I'll never see, and I'm 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner because of the way we do this," Coburn said. "It's not fair to these horses who have been in the game since Day One. I look at it this way. If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races."
That would have been fair enough if that been the extent of his post-race rant, but then it got personal.
"It's all of nothing because this is not fair to these horses who have been runing their guts out for these people. This is the coward's way out. If you've got a horse that earns points, that runs in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run in all three races."
The outcome of the race certainly supported the notion that the current eligibility requirements for the Belmont create an uneven running surface. Tonalist and second-place finisher Commissioner had not raced since the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago. The show horse, Medal Count, skipped the Preakness after running eighth in the Derby. The two other horses that ran in all three races — Ride on Curlin and General A Rod — finished well off the pace.
The messenger simply let his emotions run away with him and trampled all over the message, which would have been better delivered at a later date. The immediate aftermath of the race is the time to congratulate the winner and compliment your horse and jockey for a very exciting attempt to reach a very elusive goal.
Instead, a legitimate complaint simply came across as sour grapes, and it didn't help that trainer Art Sherman declined to be interviewed after the race.
Really? You couldn't shut these guys up for more than a month. They never met a microphone or a tape recorder they didn't like while they were guaranteeing that California Chrome would make history. The blue-collar colt gave the racing world a terrific thrill ride at a time when the sport needs all the starpower it can generate, but that was quickly overshadowed by what will heretofore be known as Coburn's Complaint.
On a day when horse racing should have been unabashedly celebrating a heart-stopping Triple Crown series, the owner of Tonalist — Robert S. Evans — delivered a terse "no comment" when asked to respond to Coburn's remarks.
Tonalist's trainer, Christophe Clement, said he could identify with the disappointment of California Chrome's team, but saw no reason to apologize for entering his horse in the Belmont and scoring the biggest victory of his career.
"I've been where Steve Coburn is," Clement said. "It's no fun when you don't win … California Chrome did a great thing. There is nothing negative. Of course, I'm going to do everything I can to win the race. I'm sure I'll be able to find a way to sleep tonight."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.