June 7 held such promise. The weather was perfect on Long Island, Martin Panza and crew in the racing office at the New York Racing Association put on the best race card at Belmont Park this side of a Breeders’ Cup program, and the track drew a monster crowd. The anticipation of a Triple Crown win put a crackle of electricity in the air.
Palace Malice, last year’s Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner, returned to win the historic Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) before an adoring crowd. Four other grade I races offered handicapping intrigue and thrilling finishes, including a cast for the ages in the Ogden Phipps Stakes (gr. I).
This was racing’s big comeback day. One shining moment.
Then it happened.
No, it wasn’t Tonalist getting up to edge Commissioner in the big finale, with Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) winner California Chrome finishing fourth in a dead heat.
Steve Coburn opened his mouth.
And the co-breeder and co-owner of California Chrome kept on yapping in front of NBC’s Kenny Rice.
“I’ll never see—and I’m 61 years old—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 one. If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races.
“It’s all or nothing. It’s all or nothing because 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. This is a coward’s way out, in my opinion. This is a coward’s way out.”
For five weeks, Coburn and Team California Chrome wove a storybook rags-to-riches tale that drew hundreds of thousands to the sport of racing. His asinine post-race comments, without first conferring with trainer Art Sherman or jockey Victor Espinoza as to what may actually have happened to California Chrome in the race, squashed all that in the span of about 30 seconds.
Luckily, most of the 100,000-plus on track didn’t hear Coburn’s comments, including Tonalist’s owner Robert “Shel” Evans, who had been in a similar situation in 1981 when his father’s Pleasant Colony came up short in his Triple Crown bid.
Yet Coburn wasn’t finished.
“They’re a bunch of goddamn cheaters,” Coburn told Pat Forde’s Yahoo Sports on his way out of the track. “If your horse doesn’t even have the points to run in the Kentucky Derby, he shouldn’t be able to run in the Triple Crown. They’re goddamn cheaters.”
Yet Coburn still wasn’t finished.
Instead of offering an apology the following morning, on NBC’s “Today Show” he spewed: “These people nominate their horses for the Triple Crown and then they hold out two (races) and then come back and run one. That would be like me at 6-2 playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair.”
We now know the true reason that his partnership with Perry Martin has “DAP” on their silks. Coburn proved him self to be a “dumb ass partner.”
As the old racing adage goes: You can judge a man by how he reacts to his first good horse.
Mercifully, Coburn offered a tearful apology to the nation June 9 on “Good Morning America” but his antics for the 36 hours prior were deplorable and an embarrassment to anyone associated with the sport of Thoroughbred racing. The stewards should give him days.
We came to New York expecting to witness a superlative card of racing and to see if California Chrome had what it took to join racing’s most exclusive club. Despite the wondrous day and the efforts of California Chrome, what is left is the vision of a spoiled brat throwing a temper tantrum.
In any endeavor, one should win with grace and lose with dignity. Considering Coburn’s boasting after the Derby and his gut-punch to Churchill Downs after the Preakness, he has exhibited neither on his journey.
There is a reason only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown. It takes a special horse with the talents and the temperament to make it through the five-week journey in the spring. And that goes for the connections as well. Those 11 winners had owners who were sportsmen and who graciously represented racing with a certain level of class. Coburn proved he doesn’t belong with that group and was a true spoil sport with his post-race comments.
He is proof positive the racing gods exist.