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Opinion: California Chrome's Co-Owner Owes an Apology

Even before the horses were unsaddled after yesterday’s Belmont Stake, the nation’s TV screens were filled with the image of the big hat, big mustache and big mouth of Steve Coburn, who has just seen California Chrome – the colt he co-owns with Perry Martin – lose his bid to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 36 years ago.

He was so boastful following the colt’s victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he was classless in defeat. Almost literally shaking a fist at the victorious Tonalist, who had skipped both the Derby and Preakness to point for the Belmont, Coburn accused winning owner Robert Evans of “taking the coward’s way out.”

(UPDATE: Coburn as apologized for his rant ABC News)


He furthermore claimed that Evans’ strategy was “unfair” to the horses who had run in the Derby. In other words, only the horses who run in the Derby and/or Preakness should be allowed to run in the Belmont. After he was done thoroughly embarrassing himself, his wife Carolyn admonished him but he snarled, “I don’t care.”
He owes Evans a public apology. No owner should be forced to run a horse before he’s ready and it’s a perfect acceptable strategy to point a horse for the Belmont, the third jewel in the Triple Crown and New York’s most prestigious race, instead of the Derby. At least, that’s the way it has been since the Derby was first run in 1875. No owner or trainer in 140 years has ever criticized another’s game plan the way Coburn lashed out at Evans yesterday.

It’s hard to say whether Coburn is as much of a bad sport as he is a blowhard, or whether he’s just ignorant about the sport’s customs. Probably a little of both. But his attack on Evans, coming only three weeks after his ill-advised criticism of Churchill Downs on the Preakness victory stand, has stained the feel-good story of California Chrome more than yesterday’s defeat.
Why did the colt lose? Well, maybe the pedigree experts were right. Maybe he didn’t have the breeding necessary to handle the Belmont distance of a mile and a half. Maybe jockey Victor Espinoza, who rode perfect races in the Derby and Preakness, should have recognized the slow pace and taken him to lead after the first quarter-mile. Maybe Espinoza moved him too quickly and didn’t leave anything in the tank for the last 300 yards.
Or maybe – and most likely – Chrome ran into a late-blooming colt who had the perfect game plan. Of the three colts who finished ahead of Chrome yesterday, none had competed in both the Derby and the Preakness. Heck, given his druthers, Art Sherman, Chrome’s trainer, might have skipped the Preakness. But once a horse wins the Derby, he’s almost obligated to go for the Triple Crown, whether it’s good for him or not.
Since the Triple Crown was invented in the 1930s, the Derby winner always has faced “new shooters” – fresh horses – in both the Preakness and the Belmont. It’s as much a part of Triple Crown history as the roses, Black-Eyed Susans, and carnations that go the winners of the three events. The 11 Triple Crown winners were good enough to take on all comers. California Chrome was not. It’s really as simple as that.
Generally speaking, the owners and trainers of the Triple Crown winners all have been deserving horsemen and perfect sportsman. But sometimes a good horse falls into the hands of people who don’t deserve him, and that now appears to be the case with Coburn and Martin. Especially Coburn.
After the Preakness, he praised Baltimore and Pimlico for their hospitality. But then, instead of leaving it at that, he added that “Churchill Downs could learn something” from them. He later explained that Churchill hadn’t made the necessary arrangements for Martin’s mother, who was in a wheelchair, to see the race and get to the winner’s circle.
Coming in the wake of other complaints by horsemen, Coburn’s comments were easy to believe. But the facts didn’t support his complaints. The Lexington Herald-Leader ran a photo of Churchill employees carrying the wheelchair to the winner’s circle. And apparently Martin chose a place for his mother to watch the race where it was impossible to prevent fans from jumping up in front of her.
Although Martin tried to soften the sting of Coburn’s remarks when he was finally interviewed, Coburn did not retract his statements or apologize. But his remarks about Churchill paled in comparison with his attack on Evans (who, by the way, is not the same Bob Evens who runs Churchill Downs, Inc.).
Here’s a thought: Maybe the racing gods just don’t let cads and heels win the Triple Crown. Even before the Derby, Coburn predicted that Chrome would sweep all three races. Conceit makes the gods frown. Maybe that’s as good an explanation as any for what happened yesterday. Maybe Coburn’s boorishness trumped the goodness and decency of Art Sherman, the 77-year-old former jockey who was trying to join immortals such Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Ben A. jones, and Laz Barrera on the Triple Crown winner’s list.
Chrome did not run a bad race. He dead-heated with Wicked Strong four fourth, maybe two lengths behind the winner. He just did not get the perfect trip he got in the Derby. Had he gone straight to the lead and controlled the pace, the outcome might have been different.
Instead of becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, Chrome became the 13th horse to win the first two legs and fail in New York. Since Affirmed last won all three in 1978, the list of horses who couldn’t cut it in the Big Apple includes Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008), and I’ll Have Another (2012).
So many quests have failed that the public can’t be blamed for feeling as if they’re trapped in the movie “Groundhog Day,” where history keeps repeating itself. It has the feeling of Lucy from the “Peanuts” comic strip, promising Charlie Brown that she won’t jerk away the football when he tries to kick it, but then always does, leaving poor Charlie flat on his back.
But there was nothing funny about Coburn’s shocking display of bad sportsmanship. Sadly, it detracted from Tonalist’s victory. When NBC’s Bob Costas repeated Coburn’s charges to Evans on the victory stand, he declined to reply because, well, he’s a gentleman and a sportsman. Everything, in other words, that he of the big hat, big mustache, and big mouth is not.

Written by Billy Reed as originally published at KY Forward.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.