LITTLE ROCK — Engaging while winning, the co-owner of California Chrome oozed enmity after losing.
Willing to dismiss the immediate rancor of Steve Coburn as a spur-of-the-moment response to the end of a Triple Crown dream, I was surprised that he passed on several second-day opportunities to recant his rant.
On Monday, on “Good Morning America,” he decided to “apologize to everyone associated” with Belmont winner Tonalist and “all the horse racing in the world.”
We all make mistakes and better late than never, but I wondered if the apology was his idea.
Moments after California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth, Coburn said those calling the shots with Belmont winner Tonalist had taken the “coward’s way out” by not running in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.
He ignored the fact that physical problems forced Tonalist to miss the Wood Memorial in early April, in effect killing his chances of earning enough points to get into the Derby. Beaten a head by Tonalist, Commissioner also missed the first two legs of the Triple Crown even though his connections sent him to New Mexico and to Arkansas trying to get points to qualify for the Derby.
On neither front were those hiccups part of a master plan to ambush California Chrome in New York.
All who have competed — whether golf or tiddlywinks — have lost their cool immediately after a tough defeat, but given an overnight to simmer down, Coburn told ESPN on Sunday, “If you want to call me a sore loser, have at it,” and provided his phone number.
Contrast that to the reaction of Smarty Jones’ owner the day after Birdstone ruined her horse’s Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont. John Hendrickson, whose wife owned Birdstone, said Patricia Chapman responded to their attempt to apologize by saying, “Don’t be silly. Your horse kicked our horse’s (butt).”
Coburn’s statements during the first 24 hours indicated he is unaware of the vagaries of a business where the leading owners lose three of every four races, where an owner-breeder for 50 years never had a horse in a Triple Crown race until Tonalist ran Saturday, and where 10 owners wasted a $6,000 late fee to nominate to the Triple Crown just because their horse had demonstrated a hint of talent.
An injury to California Chrome’s right front hoof similar to a torn toenail may have contributed to the Belmont loss, but it’s more likely that his breeding and the rigors of three races in five weeks caught up with him. Poised to make a run outside of Tonalist, California Chrome had no kick.
Part of the fascination with the Derby-Preakness winner was his no-name pedigree, including a father with a stud fee of $2,500.
On the other hand, Tonalist is the son of Tapit, whose stud fee of $150,000 per is tied for highest in North America. Commissioner is the son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy and the grandson of 1997 Belmont winner Touch Gold.
In Coburn’s proposed world, only Derby runners would be allowed to participate in Triple Crown races.
In addition to three racetracks, different distances, and the time frame, numbers contribute to the difficulty of the Triple Crown. California Chrome defeated 27 horses in the first two legs and had 10 opponents in New York.
Since 1981, six horses have had to beat 30 or more runners to complete the Triple Crown and all failed. Tops on the list are Pleasant Colony with 40 opponents in 1981 and Charismatic with 39 in 1999. The only Triple Crown winners who defeated more than 30 opponents were War Admiral in 1937 and Assault in 1946.
In the 1970s, Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew defeated 29 horses, Secretariat beat 21, and Affirmed dispatched 20.
A super horse will come along and sweep the three races. California Chrome is a very good horse that had things his way in Louisville and Baltimore.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.