Whoa Nellie, Maybe Coburn's Right

By Jack Shinar

In their rush to heap ridicule on upstart horse owner Steve Coburn for complaining about the Triple Crown series, the racing press and, apparently, most of the sport's fans, are missing an important point. He's right.

The system is rigged against the best horse completing the Triple Crown. He's also correct in saying that, at age 61, he'll never see another one actually pull it off in his lifetime unless something is changed.

Coburn, the outspoken co-owner and breeder of 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, complained after his colt's defeat in the Belmont Stakes that horses that don't qualify with enough points to make the Derby field should not be allowed to jump into the subsequent races as spoilers.

His rant was not eloquent, and he most assuredly said things he shouldn't have. Coburn was immediately jumped upon by the racing wags as a "poor loser." And yet, those of us who have been following his horse know that this is not a new subject for him.

Coburn brought it up earlier on the Triple Crown trail when he felt forced to run California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby—which he and D.A.P. partner Perry Martin did not originally plan to do—for fear that the charismatic colt's win in the San Felipe Stakes would not garner enough points to earn a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

How much did that extra grade I race take out of 'Chrome? There's no way of knowing, of course, but it had to have added to the rigors of the Triple Crown, as it did with I'll Have Another, injured prior to the Belmont after taking the Santa Anita Derby and the first two jewels two years ago.

Meantime Tonalist, a worthy Belmont Stakes winner and clearly a star in the making, earned zero points on the pre-Derby trail. He arrived at his home track a fresh horse off a sharp Peter Pan win and raced in the Belmont Stakes with no penalty, not even a few extra pounds.

And we've seen the same thing happen time and again to Derby/Preakness winners in the past 36 years. It can be argued that the truly great ones—such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, or Affirmed—faced the same conditions. But none of those horses, indeed, none of the prior Triple Crown winners, were up against the full fields of fresh shooters such as 'Chrome faced.

Does anyone really believe that all of the dozen Derby/Preakness victors since Affirmed in 1978 failed to win the Belmont because they weren't worthy?

Predictably, the racing press is all over Coburn about his opinion. One thing I've noticed during the decade-plus that I've been covering this sport is that when the establishment is questioned, the industry circles the wagons and the wags lead the way.

Tonalist's owner, Robert S. Evans, is from a monied family with a long history in racing, the son of legendary breeder Thomas Mellon Evans, who owned Buckland Farm in the Bluegrass country.

The California Chrome folks, they're nobodys from hicksville. They were fun and refreshing and made for a fine story with their cheaply-bred colt, and the press exploited them to the max. But like the connections for Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, they are likely a one-hit wonder and will soon be forgotten.

When other sports face changing times, they adapt. But not racing. Tradition shall be honored at all costs.

So the mere suggestion of a simple change such as moving the Preakness and Belmont back a couple of weeks so that maybe more than three of the original 20 Derby entrants would show up in the subsequent legs of the series is met with howls of outrage. "Cheapens the crown," they shout, "dishonors past champions," they insist.

No it doesn't. It simply reflects the fact that times have changed and horses don't run every two weeks any longer. It doesn't make the Triple Crown any easier to win. It just helps even the playing field.

But don't get worked up about it because it will never happen. Not in racing, which will continue to be wrapped in tradition until it finally strangles itself.

Jack Shinar is the California-based Night Editor and race writer for BloodHorse.com

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