I purposely waited a few days to speak my piece on the 2014
Belmont Stakes. A few days would make things a little clearer, I thought, and
it was better to wait and type out a measured response to California Chrome’s
failed Triple Crown quest than to submit something instantly (are you
listening, Steve Coburn?).
In watching the Belmont from the Long Island Railroad
platform near the far turn, it sure looked like we’d see history once the field
turned for home. Victor Espinoza had begun to ask California Chrome for his
run, one we’d seen in every prior start this season. At first, the
modestly-bred 3-year-old pinned his ears back and dug down, but in mid-stretch,
it became clear that the late kick wasn’t coming.
Maybe it was the 12-furlong distance. Maybe Matterhorn
ruined all chance of a Triple Crown winner at the start, when he collided with
California Chrome. Maybe it was the ghosts of Affirmed and the other Triple
Crown winners handing down a fateful judgment, slowly shaking their heads as if
to say, “Not yet.”
California Chrome returned to Los Alamitos and will likely
get the long break he deserves. Maybe he’ll be back for the Pacific Classic, or
perhaps the connections will wait for the Awesome Again at Santa Anita this
fall. At any rate, he deserves a chance to rest up before coming back to tackle
the likes of Palace Malice, Mucho Macho Man, and Game On Dude later in the
year, and that’s exactly what he’s getting.
However, in finding reasons for excusing California Chrome’s
loss, let’s not forget how well Tonalist ran in victory. The Peter Pan winner
broke from an outside post and was wide most of the way, yet still had just
enough left to win a head-bob over hard-luck loser Commissioner. With
California Chrome headed west for the rest of the season, Tonalist is certainly
the horse to beat in the major New York 3-year-old races this summer.
Don’t discount Commissioner, either. The son of A.P. Indy
showed a new running style Saturday at Belmont in going straight to the lead.
He nearly wired the field, and he showed that races run at a mile and a quarter
should not be a problem. Oddly enough, though, the race he may have wanted most this
year, given his all-distance pedigree, is the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, which
was, of course, cancelled.
Unfortunately, what may have been one of the greatest days
of racing in the history of Belmont Park was marred by a series of post-race nightmares.
Coburn’s media follies have already been discussed elsewhere, and won’t be
repeated here. Dale Romans and Mike Maker were at each other’s throats over
General a Rod’s late arrival to the Belmont paddock, and transportation-related
issues left many race-goers confined to their cars as NYRA personnel tried, and
failed, to funnel traffic certain ways. Additionally, public transportation had
its own major problems, culminating with the well-documented failures of the
LIRR after racing had concluded.
The numbers will show that the day was a staggering success
for Belmont Park. Handle surged to north of $150 million, while attendance
totaled more than 102,000 people. The good news is that Saturday showed racing
can still captivate the public, and undercard performances by the likes of
Palace Malice and Bayern may have given those horses more of a following going
However, once California Chrome fell short in the Belmont,
the day went south, and quickly. More than one postmortem has cited first-time
track-goers who said they would not return after the late-day chaos, playing
into horse racing’s image as a game that struggles to attract and keep new
fans. Coburn’s antics after the race made him look like the sorest loser
imaginable, and despite the best efforts of Victor Espinoza and the Sherman
family (who had all been pictures of class throughout the Triple Crown trail),
that may affect how we remember California Chrome.
Once again, we looked to a horse for heroism, thinking that
THIS one would be the one to end the Triple Crown drought. What we got was a
fantastic day of racing, but without the payoff that many thought was a cinch.
We were disappointed, but this time, it wasn’t just because of the horse, one
who showed a ton of heart persevering through injury to even have a chance at
winning when the field turned for home.
This game may need a Triple Crown winner. Even more so,
though, it needs to stop shooting itself in the foot with public relations
disasters like the ones we saw this past weekend. If racing is to regain
relevance among the casual sports fan more than a few times every year, conscious
efforts needs to be made across the board.
Saturday showed what horse racing could still be in the eyes
of a country that loves feel-good stories. Unfortunately, it also showed why
negative perceptions about this great game exist, ones that need to disappear
immediately if racing is to thrive.