There are several elements to Steve Coburn’s outburst following Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. There is the point he was trying to make and the manner in which he made it. People will agree and disagree with the point, but there can be no disagreement with the way he delivered it, even down to snapping at his wife, who seemed to cower with embarrassment. Now that he has publicly apologized, whether forced or not, and congratulated the connections of Tonalist, it is time to move on and focus on the heroics of a very special racehorse and one of the most spectacular days in the history of New York racing.
Whether one chooses to accept or believe the sincerity of Coburn’s apology is up to each individual. I don’t know Coburn personally in the slightest, but what I saw was a man who came to a gut-wrenching and shocking revelation – the guardian angel he said was watching over California Chrome either does not exist or abandoned the horse at Belmont Park. And considering that guardian angel was his deceased sister, it had to come as a crushing blow to everything he believed in. That ethereal connection that has kept his sister a major part of the horse’s success suddenly was gone, and that is tough for anyone to accept. I also saw a man who was forced to come to the realization that the horse he was convinced was unbeatable was no different than other horses in the sense that he can beaten on any given day, whether it was due to the effects of an exhausting Triple Crown campaign, a better horse on that day, or the injury he sustained at the start of the race.
If that was part of the explanation for Coburn’s behavior, then we were dealing with a man desperately seeking an outlet in which to pour out his guts, which could account for the way his rant started out slowly and kept building to a feverish pitch the more his words resonated in his own ears. By the time his blood had reached its boiling point he wanted no part of his wife poking him in the back. One had to feel sorry for her having to endure this, but he had lost all focus at that point and was oblivious to the fact that there were millions of people inside that camera who were watching with indignation and disgust.
Looking and listening to Coburn repeating his protests during the week about the Triple Crown, mainly to the press, I see a man who is used to getting his point of view across without interference from others. He says what he thinks without use of a filtering system. The only difference now is that he has TV cameras and microphones in his face, and the whole world is listening to him. It is OK for him to stand by his convictions the next day on Good Morning America, but to continue using analogies like playing basketball against kids in wheelchairs is kind of bizarre. He should have let it go after the triathlon analogy, which at least made a little bit of sense, even though a triathlon is made up of three events that add up to a single entity and hold no individual significance, as opposed to three events that offer individual prizes, with each event its own entity and having its own history. It was as if he used that extra day not to back down, but to come up with additional analogies to enhance his point
Did his apology come too late? Was he sincere or was he pressured to save face, not so much for himself but for the reputation of his horse? Did it finally dawn on him that he may have singlehandedly destroyed the feel-good, fairy tale aspect of California Chrome’s story? Did he realize that his words affected other people who have worked so hard and tirelessly to help write the story, such as Art and Alan Sherman, his partner Perry Martin, Victor Espinoza, Willie Delgado, and others close to the horse?
The answers to these questions are known only to Coburn, who received the “Just Shut Up” award on the popular “Mike and Mike” show on ESPN Monday morning, and they rarely mention Thoroughbred racing. Whether he was sincere or not, he did apologize and it is time to put that behind us and chalk it up to the emotions of an emotional person.
Let’s remember, the story that has captivated the nation for the past two months is about California Chrome. The human interest aspects of it warm the heart, but are still sidebars to the main story, giving it enough window dressing to become part of racing lore.
Yes, I will remember Tonalist, an exceptional racehorse in his own right, and his affable trainer who was extremely generous in sharing his thoughts each morning on the track apron. But when I think back to this year’s Belmont Stakes, the one image that will last forever will be of an exhausted colt walking back through the tunnel with a bloodstained foot, his head down and breathing hard, and every vein protruding from his sweat-soaked body. He had given every ounce of himself, and with it all, still was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths.
It was hard to believe this was the same horse who came out every morning and stopped in the same spot and posed so majestically for the hordes of photographers while the morning sun set his chestnut coat aglow. It was during those few weeks that his reign in the Sport of Kings was at its peak and the dream was still alive.
But like the others before him since 1978, he left millions of fans once again dejected and unfulfilled. However, this one disappointment should not overshadow in any way what he gave the entire country and the electricity he created during those five magical weeks. The drama that is the Triple Crown has become more Shakespearean than anything else.
To those too young to remember the ‘70s, do not lose heart. We have gone through this before. Just keep thinking of Shakespeare’s words: “The golden age is before us, not behind us.”
(My full recap of the Belmont Stakes will appear later today)