Steve Coburn wasn’t the primary reason Emerald Downs was busier Saturday than Sea-Tac Airport on the day before Thanksgiving. California Chrome’s co-owner, for instance, had nothing to do with the perfect spring weather track president Ron Crockett called “the nicest we’ve ever had for a Belmont Stakes.”
But Coburn was central to the narrative of California Chrome, the chestnut bay colt that came from modest means to contend for the Triple Crown. The story of Coburn and Perry Martin — blue-collar guys who triumphed over their blue-blooded counterparts — gripped fans only marginally familiar with thoroughbred racing.
The “Dumb Ass Partners” were folk heroes, and as the mouthpiece of the operation, Coburn obtained both immediate wealth and more fame than he was prepared to handle.
California Chrome had nothing left to give jockey Victor Espinoza down the stretch of the longest stretch there is in American racing. Did Espinoza err in his decision to hold back out of the gate, putting the 4-5 favorite in traffic instead of allowing Chrome to be Chrome? Were the jockey’s tactics the difference between the first Triple Crown victory since 1978 and a fourth-place photo finish Saturday?
But the world isn’t talking about California Chrome or Victor Espinoza right now. The world is talking about Coburn, whose postrace rant on television exposed the “Dumb Ass Partner” as somebody best described by the unflattering adjective between “Dumb” and “Partner.”
Coburn depicted California Chrome — and, by extension, himself — as a victim of rules responsible for the Triple Crown drought. Seems the 11-horse Belmont Stakes field included only three entries that competed in the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness.
Tonalist, the Belmont winner, participated in neither.
“It’s not fair to these horses that are running their guts out,” Coburn said. “This is a coward’s way out. If you’ve got a horse that earns points, that runs in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run all three races.”
Coburn’s argument is reasonable. It wasn’t fair to ask California Chrome, racing for the third time in five weeks, to take on the likes of Tonalist, a colt that hadn’t faced competition since May 10 — at Belmont Park, incidentally.
But Saturday was the 146th edition of the Belmont Stakes, and 145 previous Belmont Stakes didn’t require thoroughbreds to be validated by running in a specific event. Coburn is new to the racing game — that is (or, ahem, was) his charm — but surely he knew about parameters established before the Civil War.
Maybe the time has come to talk about tweaking a format that denied a Derby-Preakness winner the Triple Crown for the fifth time in eight years.
But the time to talk about tweaking the format isn’t a few minutes after another Triple Crown wannabe has bitten the dust. Since Chrome won the Derby, Coburn has had five weeks on the open-mic stage to identify the flaws of a system that has converted the Triple Crown from a challenge into something bordering an impossibility.
And he chooses Saturday to call the owner of the Belmont Stakes champion a coward?
“It’s too bad,” Crockett said. “He struck me as folksy guy who sounded humble in victory, so you figured he’d be gracious in defeat. Maybe he’ll change his tune when he realizes the fortune he’ll make from the stud fees for his horse. That should cheer him up.”
California Chrome’s pursuit of the Triple Crown produced a banner day at Emerald Downs, where the betting handle was about $1.8 million, or $400,000 above the handle for last year’s Belmont Stakes. Chrome had the ability to make an impact on an industry welcome to impacts.
“Can you imagine if we’d had a Triple Crown winner going on to race in the Breeder’s Cup?” Crockett said. “It would have been wonderful for our sport.”
Although Crockett was as fond of the thought of a 2014 Triple Crown champion as any other race track president, he wasn’t sold on California Chrome as a Triple Crown champion.
“It’s just so difficult,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see another one.”
Which is why the Belmont Stakes bet he put down Saturday more reflected what was in his mind than his heart.
“I keyed the 11,” Crockett said.
That would be Tonalist, listed at 8-1 on the morning line. Tonalist won fair and square, and owner Robert S. Evans was due congratulations during his brief television interview with NBC’s Bob Costas.
Instead, Evans answered a question that obviously had to asked: His reaction to Coburn’s about “cowards” stacking up against California Chrome?
Evans declined to dignify the accusation with a comment. Thoroughbred racing, in this instance, showed why it’s no different than any other sport.
Some owners belong. Some owners don’t.