It’s amazing how quickly fame and fortune can lead to ruin. It almost never fails. Case in point: Steve Coburn, the co-owner of California Chrome.
His horse won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and he was an unexpected, entertaining everyman, an unlikely owner of a possible Triple Crown winner. Then California Chrome finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes and the man lost his mind. Let’s hope it was a case of temporary insanity, because he seemed like a likable person before that.
In his rant on national TV, he spoke about limiting the Preakness and Belmont to horses who’ve run in the Kentucky Derby. Waiting to run in the Belmont Stakes and winning, as Tonalist did Saturday, is the coward’s way out, he said.
One other thing Coburn said was true. California Chrome was America’s horse. Everyone loved him, loved the owners, and wanted the horse to win. I think they’d also expected better sportsmanship from the owner of America’s horse when things don’t go his way.
The idea of limiting the field won’t work, of course. You could end up with a small field of horses, many unlikely to challenge a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Winning the Triple Crown is supposed to be challenging. The three races are separate entities that are connected. Winning just one of the races is prestigious in its own right, which I’m sure how Robert Evans, the owner of Tonalist feels. He has spent a lifetime in racing, spending millions of dollars, and this is his first Triple Crown race winner. Doesn’t he deserve that moment? The chance at winning a classic race?
The Preakness and Belmont Stakes should be competitive, entertaining, and appealing to bettors. That’s accomplished by having different horses enter the picture. To bettors, each race should be its own separate puzzle.
Coburn’s contention is ridiculous, but there are other suggestions for changes in the Triple Crown that make more sense, such as shortening the distances or putting more time between races.
I don’t like any of them, however. I like the idea of 20 horses in the Derby; it’s part of what makes the race singular and legendary. The Preakness may be the middle child in this family, but it has something few other races do – the Kentucky Derby winner. Plus there’s always a Maryland-based runner entered. For people who race horses in Maryland, winning the Preakness can be a lifelong dream.
The Belmont’s signature is its daunting mile-and-a-half distance. Almost all the horses in Saturday’s race will never run that distance again. I imagine Medal Count might; I can see him winning a marathon race on the grass at Saratoga.
You would think putting time between the races would produce another Triple Crown winner, but in England, the Triple Crown races are contested in May, June and September, and there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky in 1970, a bigger gap than in the United States. Affirmed in 1978 was the last Triple Crown winner in the US.
In Canada, where the races are spaced out over three months, there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 2003.
Officials at Pimlico are pushing for a bigger gap between the Derby and the Preakness, so it’s possible the dates of the races could change. Once any changes are made, however, it will never be the same. The ones who won the Triple Crown under the old format will always been seen as having achieved more.
So here’s a good idea: Let’s leave it the same.