If only Steve Coburn’s wife, Carolyn, had been a little more insistent. She might have spared us her husband’s ill-considered rant after Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, when Coburn — the owner of Triple Crown candidate California Chrome — dropped a big pile of horse manure on what had been a charming story.
He brushed off her attempt to quiet him after his colt finished fourth, extending the Triple Crown drought to 36 years. Coburn raged that the trainers of horses who didn’t run all three legs of the Triple Crown were “cheaters” and “cowards.” It was unfair, he said, that California Chrome should have to face fresh horses in his quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in 95 years.
His diatribe only got more outrageous Sunday morning, when Coburn compared running his horse against a more rested one to him playing basketball “against a kid in a wheelchair.” By that point, Carolyn Coburn might have been looking for a spare nasal strip to paste over her husband’s mouth. But Coburn was getting plenty of support for his contention that the Triple Crown races should be changed to a cumulative format: only horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby would be eligible for the Preakness, and only starters of both races could run in the Belmont.
Which is a terrible idea. It would saddle every future winner with a giant asterisk, to differentiate between the 11 Triple Crown champs who took on all challengers from the ones who faced limited competition. It would handicap the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, two of America’s oldest and greatest horse races. And the Triple Crown, one of the rarest and most difficult feats in sports, would become a sad casualty of a culture that has lost patience for the rare and the difficult.
The Crown is not a playoff or a tournament. It is made up of three races with distinct identities and histories, races that are prestigious in and of themselves.
The Belmont Stakes is 146 years old, six years older than the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness is 139. They attract the nation’s top 3-year-old horses, including ones who might have skipped the Derby because they were late bloomers, or they were recovering from injury, or the distance or track surface didn’t suit them.
Coburn would restrict the Belmont and Preakness to the horses that ran in the Derby, which is limited to 20. He wants to talk about unfairness? Try telling the owners of non-Derby horses that they can no longer enter two of the country’s richest and most renowned races. And try telling Belmont and Preakness officials that their pool of potential entries is restricted to the Derby field — and that they can’t take an attractive new prospect, but they can have the horse who finished last in the Derby by 60 lengths.
The 11 Triple Crown champions proved their greatness against every horse that wanted to test them, including fresh ones. That’s the way it should be. Since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, 11 other horses with a shot at the sweep lost in the Belmont Stakes; eight were defeated by horses that didn’t run in all three legs, and their connections didn’t label the winner a coward or a cheat.
Every year after the Derby, only a few horses continue on the grinding Triple Crown trail. This year, only three Derby horses went on to the Preakness; those same three made it to the Belmont.
If we’re ready to give in to the notion that modern thoroughbreds are too fragile and coddled to win the Triple Crown, there are other potential tweaks. Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, wants to spread the races over eight weeks rather than five. Perhaps a better idea is to breed stronger, more durable horses.
It’s said there are a million ways to lose a horse race and only one way to win. Coburn is assuming his colt finished fourth because Tonalist, Commissioner and Medal Count were fresher, but California Chrome might have been compromised by the chunk torn out of his right front heel at the start, or by a Victor Espinoza ride that is being second-guessed.
Coburn would have us radically change the Preakness and Belmont because his horse didn’t win. Millions of fans wanted to see California Chrome wear the Triple Crown, too, in large part because it is rare and historic and truly special. His defeat stung, but cheapening the Crown because of it would be a much greater loss.