Heartbeats & Hoofbeats: Tonalist ends Chrome’s Triple Crown bid, Coburn has tantrum

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

Another heartbreaker goes on the books at Belmont. The Triple Crown trophy, brought out for the occasion just in case, goes back in storage. California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza made a noble effort, but wound up tied for fourth with Wicked Strong in the 146th Belmont Stakes.

An excited, enthusiastic crowd turned out to see whether this year “the People’s Horse” could pull it off and win the elusive trophy. Instead, they saw an upset by Tonalist, a horse that had not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. At the top of the stretch, jockey Joel Rosario began guiding him to the front, and no one could catch them.

And for Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn, that was a very sore point. He expressed his bitterness without reservation on national television, insisting that it was “unfair” to expect some horses to compete in all three races, then bring in a fresh horse that had not expended any energy on the first two. He said it should be done on a point system. As it was, he said, “this is the coward’s way out.”

Later, in the winner’s circle, Robert S. Evans, owner of Tonalist, was asked what he thought of that remark. Wisely, he decided not to comment on it.

Critics have said for years that the races were scheduled too closely together and should allow more time for horses to recover. That argument aside, no one broke any rules, used any illegal drugs, or bumped anyone out of the way. California Chrome did suffer a minor cut on his right front hoof coming out of the gate, but it is questionable whether that affected the eventual outcome. Victor Espinoza, who had lost an earlier Triple Crown bid with War Emblem in 2002, said he noticed the horse wasn’t quite the same coming out of the gate. Though Chrome seemed in general good condition, the two earlier races had obviously taken a toll on his endurance.

Steven Cauthen, who won the last Triple Crown aboard Affirmed in 1978, said he had faith that Chrome could do it. But even in that last history-making victory, Affirmed won by just a head. The Belmont oval has wide turns, and the distance traveled is a mile and a half — a lot to ask of young 3-year-old horses. Earlier, considering Chrome’s chances, Cauthen said, “He might be on the improve — he might be one of those ultra-stellar horses.” He still could be, given time to mature. Technically, these animals are still colts — not considered full-grown horses until they are 4 years old.

Coburn, still smarting from the unbelievable defeat, said he would never see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime. And now, there will most likely be more pressure to change the rules on when the races should be run, and possibly, who is eligible to compete. But, looking at it from another angle, a Triple Crown winner may be unlikely in any event given the current economy. Horse racing, as a sport, has not been in the public spotlight for some time. Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, attracted the public’s attention because they both worked at regular jobs, and they got a bargain mare and stallion to sire a Cinderella-type horse. Most people who breed horses have plenty of money and several horses in their stables. It isn’t called “the sport of kings” for no reason.

Another trainer, Todd Pletcher, was pleased with the performance of Commissioner, who finished second. Pletcher had said that his horse had the perfect pedigree for 1-1/2 miles. “He ran super,” Pletcher said. Commissioner had also finished second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan Stakes May 10 at Belmont. And, like Tonalist, he passed up the Derby and the Preakness. However, Tonalist had a good excuse for missing the Derby; he had been too sick to compete in the Wood Memorial and failed to qualify for the Derby.

There is always a show of emotion at these races. If you don’t like the regulations, then talk to the people in charge about changing them. But it benefits no one to put on a temperamental display of sour grapes, as it shows poor sportsmanship and sets a terrible example to resort to name-calling. The proper thing to do would be to say little, but congratulate the winner on a race run well. Art Sherman, the trainer, declined to comment at the time and wisely stayed out of the fray. Later, however, he did say that neither the horses nor people were cowards, and noted that Coburn was a new owner who didn’t have much experience with bad luck. Certainly, many older, respected trainers know that sometimes, no matter how diligent you are, no matter how hard you try, circumstances go against you. When they do win, they are especially appreciative, regarding it as a gift, and when they lose despite their best efforts, they do not denigrate the winner or the system. Victor Espinoza, Chrome’s jockey, said, “I’m just honored to be with him and have such a nice ride with all his victories that we had with him.”

California Chrome may have failed in his bid to win the Triple Crown, but he has always been a class act. Too bad the same can’t be said for his co-owner, Steve Coburn. The word is that after a long rest and time to heal his injured hoof, Chrome may run in the Breeder’s Cup. Let’s hope that by that time, his volatile co-owner will have learned some better manners.

From the June 11-17, 2014, issue

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