I hope there weren’t too many of you out there who scheduled your entire Saturday around two hours of hype, and then were let down by this year’s Belmont Stakes. Once again, it was proven that winning a Triple Crown is nearly impossible, as California Chrome showed, finishing the race in a distant fourth place.
For fans of drama and excitement, the event wasn’t a complete loss. The race was exciting, even though the finish wasn’t what we tuned in for, and there was drama when California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn took to the camera for a post-race rant he later had to apologize for.
First there was the leadup to the race and the saga of California Chrome, a sort of rags-to-riches thoroughbred who handily won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness Stakes to become “America’s Horse.” Could a colt bred by two no-name owners for a mere $10,000 possibly win the Belmont Stakes and go on to become a horse-racing legend with a Triple Crown victory? It was the perfect kind of story to capture our attention, and was probably why so many of us couldn’t wait to tune in last Saturday afternoon. History could be made.
There were plenty of “California Chrome will win” predictions leading up to the race, and those who had the means put their money on him to do just that. According to The Daily Beast, over $9 million was bet on California Chrome – the most ever wagered on any horse to take the Belmont Stakes. Chrome entered the starting gate in the No. 2 slot, and was the 4-5 favorite to win.
With jockey Victor Espinoza astride, California Chrome launched out of the gate and started what could be a mile-and-a-half ride to glory. Instead of pushing the colt out to the front right away, as Espinoza did in the Derby and the Preakness, he hung back and stayed near the front of the pack for most of the race. After being boxed in, Espinoza, around the last turn, pushed Chrome to the outside, hoping he’d have what it takes to make the final push for the lead in the homestretch.
I’m the first to admit I’m no horse-racing expert, but I liked the way Espinoza raced that day. He moved Chrome to the outside, giving him a clear path to take the lead. He set Chrome up to prove to the world he had what it takes to win the Triple Crown. But that wasn’t to be. Chrome didn’t have the gas left in the tank to make a final, strong push and finished fourth behind the fresh-legged Tonalist, who won the Belmont. It was proof, once again, that winning the Triple Crown is nearly impossible.
Even though Chrome was the 4-5 favorite to win the Belmont, the odds of making that a reality, as history would suggest, were stacked against him. First, according to The Beast, an estimated 1.3 million thoroughbreds have been born in the past 36 years since Affirmed won it in 1978, none of them going on to win the Triple Crown.
Since that time, there have been 12 straight Derby-Preakness winners that were unable to win the Belmont to complete the Triple Crown. The track at Belmont Park offers a tough race. The oval is North America’s longest track, and with its surface of silt, clay and sand – giving it its nickname “Big Sandy” – can make tired legs seem even heavier.
As if the track weren’t challenging enough, you also have horses running in the Belmont Stakes who didn’t compete in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes. In fact, most of the horses who competed in the Belmont last weekend didn’t compete in the Preakness. The Belmont Stakes winner, Tonalist, didn’t compete in the Preakness or the Kentucky Derby. The horse with the fresh legs has the upper hand in the Belmont, and that is precisely why California Chrome co-owner Coburn, in a post-race tantrum on Saturday, argued that the three Triple Crown races should only be open to those horses that qualify and run in the Kentucky Derby.
“This is the coward’s way out,” the cowboy hat-wearing Coburn, who looks a lot like Wilford Brimley, told NBC on live TV following the race. Coburn couldn’t hold back his anger at the fact that a horse with fresh legs took his beloved horse’s chance at a Triple Crown away. “I am 61 years old, and I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner.”
Coburn’s rant proved to be beautiful live TV. Sadly, 10 years from now, when we are hyping up another possible Triple Crown opportunity, we will not remember the rags-to-riches horse who was California Chrome; instead we will remember the finger-pointing, mustached Coburn’s harangue about how he and his steed were wronged in the Belmont.
The next day, Coburn made his apologies, declaring to the world that Tonalist deserved to win. He had to make nice.
I Initially agreed with him. It sucks that a horse with fresh legs comes in and steals the show. California Chrome did have a target on his back on Saturday, and everyone was gunning to beat him.
Should things change? No.
The Triple Crown is nearly impossible to achieve. If it is ever won again, it will take a very special horse, a horse with super powers, to do it. We all hoped that California Chrome was that horse. We wanted to see history made. But if the organizers of the Triple Crown series decide now to change the rules, as Coburn suggested, it would just cheapen the award. The Triple Crown hasn’t been won very often for a reason. Will be other horses that win it? Who knows? Maybe it will happen sometime in the next 20 to 30 years.
I feel certain the next “America’s Horse” is waiting around the corner to give it a shot.
Let’s keep the Triple Crown, as hard as it may be to win, as is.