Winston Churchill once said, “Nothing in life is more exhilarating than to be shot at without result,” and, after stepping way out on a limb guaranteeing California Chrome--despite prohibitive favoritism--would fail in his bid for the Triple Crown Saturday, and then watching him come up empty in the Belmont stretch, I feel like I know what Churchill meant.
You’ll recall in this space last week I promised you California Chrome would not win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, despite most everyone else telling you this was finally the year, the horse, and the circumstance.
What made me so certain?
Well, mainly the fact that 12 horses since Affirmed had tried and failed, and the majority of those were better horses than California Chrome. I watched the last eight--Silver Charm in ‘97, Real Quiet in ‘98, Charismatic in ‘99, War Emblem in ‘02, Funny Cide in ‘03, Smarty Jones in ‘04, Big Brown in ‘08, and I’ll Have Another in ‘12--and I recall the pundits promulgating each of those times that history was at hand. The odds of that many horses coming up snake eyes in the same one race are astronomical, so there must be some explanation, right?
Well, there is, and it’s a simple one: things happen. Whether it’s pilot error, bad luck, or fatigue--or a mixture of all three--something always seems to go wrong.
On Saturday, California Chrome had his foot stepped on leaving the gate, and he bled during the race. There’s also been much discussion of the ride he got from jockey Victor Espinoza, with critics arguing Espinoza should’ve sent California Chrome to the lead when he discovered the pace was going to be soft. The Greek chorus also noted the Chrome’s preferred running style of being at--or near--the front, and outside horses. Espinoza, however, dropped him behind horses on the rail, so California Chrome was boxed in, forced to rate, and had dirt kicked in his face. Personally, I didn’t love nor hate the ride Espinoza gave him, and it doesn’t matter, anyway, because the ride didn’t get him beat, and neither did the bleeding hoof. What got him beat was the wear and tear of the Triple Crown trail and the Belmont’s punishing 1 1/2 mile length.
Despite what one thinks of the ride, California Chrome had every opportunity in the stretch on the outside to accelerate past his foes as he did so many times in the past. But, when his jockey told him to go, there just wasn’t anything in the tank, and that’s perfectly understandable.
Nothing in this horse’s cheap and lackluster pedigree said he’d go this far, and the grinding Belmont is an arduous task even for long-winded colts. More importantly, it was his third taxing race in five weeks. The only other two horses to run in the first two legs of the Triple Crown as California Chrome did--General A Rod and Ride on Curlin--still haven’t reached the finish line. The winner, Tonalist, skipped the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, as did runner-up Commissioner. Medal Count, who finished third, skipped Pimlico after running at Churchill Downs, as did Wicked Strong, who dead-heated with California Chrome for fourth.
Regardless of what California Chrome’s petty yahoo of a co-owner, Steve Coburn, said after the race, the Triple Crown is not impossible. But, with the way modern thoroughbreds are bred for speed instead of stamina, and the way most contemporary trainers give their horses extended vacations between races, it’ll take a genuinely special horse to overcome those obstacles. California Chrome wasn’t special. End of story.
It’s really too bad Coburn had to make such a horse’s hindquarters out of himself following the race, because the trainer, Art Sherman, and Espinoza were gracious. Coburn’s baseless harangue, calling the winning connections cowards and cheaters, was classless and clueless. The Triple Crown has been run the same way for about a century, and all the previous winners dealt with the same conditions California Chrome did. I understand Coburn is relatively new to the horse-owning game, but he can’t possible be that dense.
However, I was still prepared to at least partly give him a pass--after all, I’ve said some terribly regrettable things in anger following disappointment--but, after having a night to sleep on his idiocy, he doubled down instead of backtracking, comparing what happened to his horse to him playing basketball against children in wheelchairs. Yes, really.
Fortunately, after taking leave of his senses for about 36 hours, he did the humane thing and apologized--seemingly sincerely--on “Good Morning America” Monday, finally. This, of course, won’t make anyone forget about the way he ignominiously disregarded the first lesson all of us learn playing sports: you need to win, and, while tougher--but more important--lose, with grace.
It also doesn’t detract from his nonsensical views. If you change the Triple Crown--either by increasing the time between races, barring certain horses from competing, or any other cockamamie scheme you dream up to turn the Triple Crown into Kabuki theater--it ceases to be the Triple Crown. Any horse who won it wouldn’t belong in the company of the 11 other immortal equines.
I hope a horse does finally win the Triple Crown one of these years, but it has to be done the right way, not cheapened by making it easier.
I also hope that horse isn’t owned by Steve Coburn.
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan