If California Chrome's co-owner had stated his argument calmly and precisely in the days leading up to the final jewel of the Triple Crown, Coburn wouldn't have sounded like some sulky, lonesome cowboy in front of a national television audience that, by and large, spends an hour or two watching horse racing each year.
Coburn and his 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, entered Saturday as the populist owners of America's horse. They were regular guys ready to make Triple Crown history, and for a day, a sporting nation would rejoice in their glory. After California Chrome sputtered down the stretch of the grueling 1 1/2-mile race, finishing out of the money in a dead heat for fourth place, Coburn left Saturday as America's poor sport.
Thirteen times since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978 — back when Jimmy Carter and disco ruled America — a horse has captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fall short in every way imaginable. They are left literally crying the tears of raw emotion. But this time, after Tonalist won, this time it was crying in the crybaby sense.
Coburn accused the owners and trainers of the horses that don't run in all three races as taking the coward's way out. And, in a snit, he kept using the "c" word. It made for compelling television. It also landed Coburn splat in the good sportsman's hall of shame.
"Our horse had a target on his back, and everybody else lays out one, and they don't run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, they wait until the Belmont," Coburn said from under his cowboy hat. "If you've got a horse, run him in all three. Those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. This is the coward's way out."
There was a reasonable argument lost in his sore loser's lament. Many horse racing traditionalists insist the Triple Crown is terrific just the way it. They overlook the fact that for the first century of the Triple Crown, dates and order of races bounced around. The current format that was set in 1969, that's only 45 years ago. Let's be honest, it's not like centuries of kings in the sport of kings are going to jump from their graves if there is tinkering with a 45-year-old format.
But when you keep repeating, "It's the coward's way out. It's the coward's way out," you come off as bitter. When your wife is caught on camera trying to calm you down and her face is caught slightly aghast as Coburn turned around and goes, "I don't care!," well, you hadn't exactly stated your case as eloquently as the late William F. Buckley. And when you tell Yahoo Sports, "They're a bunch of goddamn cheaters," not classy at all.
"It's all or nothing," Coburn said. "It's all or nothing. This is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people that believe in them. [California Chrome] didn't have it in him, apparently. This is his third very big race.
"These other horses, they set him out and try to upset the applecart. I'm 61 years old, and I'll never see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this. It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day 1. If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races."
There are some owners, especially in the early months of the year, who would agree with Coburn in theory. Three races in five weeks, culminating in the longest race of the horse's life is a grueling task. Yet when you consider that General a Rod and Ride On Curlin were the only two other horse who ran in all three races, you see these same horsemen play all sorts of strategies after the Derby to pull out one Triple Crown race win.
More owners — Tonalist owner Robert Evans is one of them — are open to the idea of spacing a few more weeks between the races. One idea is to run the races the first week of May, June and July. On a conference call recently, owners, trainers and jockeys of the last three Triple Crown winners wanted zero change. With so much of their lives defined by Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, their responses weren't surprising.
Understandably, when hit broadside by what Coburn said, Evans answered, "I have no comment on that."
When asked again in a general sense, Evans said, "I actually think it would be better to spread it out. It's better for the horses, and it would be better to promote it, I think, a lot more time to create interest. Racing has problems in that it doesn't believe in marketing or selling itself, and it should do more of that. The time wouldn't do any good if racing doesn't promote itself."
Evans is chairman of Crain, an industrial manufacturing company based in Stamford. Since he stepped down as CEO, he has focused more on horse breeding. He has owned a farm in Easton, Md., for two decades. According to the Baltimore Sun, Evans usually sends his broodmares to Kentucky to breed, then brings the foals back to Maryland, where they're raised until it's time to sell them or place them in training.
Here's the thing with Tonalist, who went off at 9-1 odds. Evans said he was sick and missed the Wood and didn't have the points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Coburn would probably say tough luck, but these are the types of circumstances that have to be considered.
Evans' dad owned Tonalist's grandfather Pleasant Colony. Tonalist, he said, is 17 hands.
"A big boy," Evans said, "like his grandfather."
Pleasant Colony is one of the 13 horses who met the same fate as California Chrome, off at 4-5, since Affirmed won the Triple Crown 36 years ago. After Spectacular Bid, off at 3-10 odds, finished third in 1979, Pleasant Colony, off at 4-5, finished third in 1981. And on and on went history. Secretariat died on Oct. 4, 1989. Affirmed died on Jan. 12, 2001. Seattle Slew was gone on May 7, 2002. We need a living Triple Crown winner. What we don't need is a Triple Crown crybaby.
It is worth noting that Citation beat 15 horses to win the Triple Crown in 1948. Secretariat defeated 21 in 1973 when he ended the longest drought to that point. Affirmed beat 20. California Chrome needed to beat 37 horses. None of the previous 11 Triple Crown winners faced more than seven challengers in the Belmont, some as few as two. California Chrome faced 10.
Since 1978, a total of 1.3 million thoroughbreds reached the 3-year-old class and none has done what Affirmed did. Few experts had placed California Chrome in the class of Affirmed or Seattle Slew, let alone Secretariat, and the big fields he faced don't speak to the quality of his opponents. They do, of course, speak to the quantity he had to overcome. This is a different breed than a generation ago. The breed is faster and sleeker, but not as hearty nor as durable. The fact that Tonalist is the ninth Belmont winner in a row not to run in the Preakness tells you plenty.
Trainer Kenny McPeek said Friday that he believes Lasix, used to control bleeding, is a major reason there haven't been any Triple Crown winners. McPeek also said he thinks horses without experience on the big sandy surface at Belmont are at distinct disadvantage. It's interesting that Tonalist and second-place Commissioner also ran 1-2 in the Peter Pan at the Belmont on May 10.
Jockey Kent Desormeaux, who met the same fate as California Chrome on Real Quiet in 1998 and Big Brown in 2008, was once asked what it's like to be so close to history and be denied.
"It's like swallowing a spoon sideways," he said.
Coburn probably should have swallowed a spoon sideways, at least long enough for the television cameras to leave. Coburn's stable is named Dumb-Ass Partners after a comment someone once made about the sketchy wisdom of buying California Chrome's mother for $8,000. The name fit Saturday night.