Opinions were as plentiful as discarded mutuel tickets at Santa Anita Sunday morning in the aftermath of California Chrome’s unsuccessful bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, followed by the politically incorrect rant-heard-round-the-world on NBC-TV by Chrome’s co-owner/breeder Steve Coburn.
During the post-race interview, Coburn said horsemen who didn’t run in all three legs of the Triple Crown took “a coward’s way out” and that his horse had “a “target on his back” in the Belmont Stakes.
Coburn stood by his comments in an interview Sunday morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“Art (Sherman, trainer of California Chrome) forgot to put a tongue-tie on his owner,” one prominent trainer cracked Sunday morning at Santa Anita, where the buzz was all about the Belmont. “Hindsight is 20-20,” said another. “What was a feel-good story became a black eye for racing.”
Coburn’s reaction overshadowed a gallant grass roots effort by the California-bred chestnut, who captured the hearts of down-home folks nationwide by winning the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes before falling less than two lengths short in the Triple Crown’s most elusive jewel, the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.
California Chrome finished in a dead-heat for fourth in the race, marking the first time in his previous six starts, all victories under Victor Espinoza, that California Chrome did not have the lead at any point in the race.
Criticism invariably rears its ugly head in defeat. It takes more than 20 fingers and toes to point all the blame, be it on the track, the distance, the weight, or horse, trainer or jockey. The reality is this: nobody ever gave a bad ride winning.
“It wasn’t Victor’s fault,” said private clocker Gary Young. “California Chrome looked like he was falling asleep in the paddock. That was the first sign the horse wasn’t going to run well.
“He was dead. I mean, you don’t want him washing out and going nuts, but you like to see him on his toes a little bit. For a modern-day race horse to run three times in five weeks and the last race being a mile and a half is a very, very tough thing.
“If the Triple Crown remains at a two and three-week intervals, we’ll see a Triple Crown winner sooner or later, but they’ll be few and far between because the modern day race horse isn’t supposed to run like that. I wanted the horse to win, but like I told you (before the Belmont), it was 50-50.
“It was unfortunate that they put the microphone in Coburn’s face and he went from a lovable Wilford Brimley to the grandfather from hell with those comments.
“(Jockey Javier) Castellano (on Commissioner in post position eight, who was beaten a head by Tonalist) had horse. If Victor goes (on the lead from his No. 2 post), Castellano’s going to be outside of him breathing on him the whole way.
“Victor took back, he got him to the outside, and right before he got to the quarter pole, on the aerial shot, when he asked, there was nothing there.”
Bob Baffert, who has had three shots at winning the Triple Crown (Silver Charm, 1997; Real Quiet, 1998; and War Emblem with Espinoza up in 2002), chalked Chrome’s defeat up to one of those things.
“I was listening to (Art’s son and assistant) Alan Sherman after the race and he said the horse maybe was a little flat. It probably all caught up to him. You don’t know until you put him in the gate.”
Baffert absolved Espinoza’s tactics. “They were going to get him; they were going to go after him,” Baffert said. “I think the horse didn’t respond to him. He didn’t have the horse. That’s why the Triple Crown is so hard; it wears on the horse. The horse was a little flat, but you don’t know that.
“You can train on them and they’ll fool you. You send them up there and they’ll come back and the rider will say, ‘You know what? He was flat.’ He didn’t have the gears, and a lot of that is it finally gets to them.
“That’s why it’s so difficult. I have so much respect for those names (of the Triple Crown winners) that are on the (Belmont) infield, because not only did they win it, they trained hard before the third leg, and they handled it.
“The only one I had that handled it was (2001 Horse of the Year) Point Given. He was a freak of nature. He lost the Derby, and that’s going to happen, but you need a great horse to win all three races. You’re always hoping that maybe this is the one. I think California Chrome is a very good horse, take nothing away from him, but it just caught up to him. He’s tough; he can beat those horses, but he just couldn’t beat them yesterday.”
Eddie Delahoussaye won the Belmont twice, with Risen Star in 1988 and Horse of the Year A.P. Indy in 1992. Espinoza was blameless, in his eyes.
“California Chrome broke outward, and (40-1 shot) Matterhorn broke in and collided with him,” Delahoussaye said. “Victor got his horse straight and he was trying to get through a hole before he got to the first turn, and he got through, but after that other horses were right in front of him and it was like that all the way to the turn for home and there’s not much you can do when things like that happen.
“If it looked like Victor was trying to reserve his horse, it’s because the other horses made him do it, because they had him pinned in. When he finally got out, he was good (though five wide) and he made a little run, but then he just hung it up.
“But I know when a horse gets cut like he did (suffering a quarter crack to his right front foot when making contact with Matterhorn after the break), at the beginning of the race, because of the adrenalin, they don’t feel it as much. But once they start relaxing, they’ll feel it. It was just bad racing luck.
“Victor couldn’t have done anything. In these races, you’ve got the best 3-year-olds in the country, so you can’t make any mistakes, because someone else is going to get you, and that’s what happened.”
And so ends the storybook saga of California Chrome’s improbable pursuit of the Triple Crown that went mainstream. Minutes before the Belmont, it was the top line on the Drudge Report, the most visited website in the world with about 150 million hits a day.
History will show that Tonalist won the 2014 Belmont Stakes, but to paraphrase Lincoln, “The world will little note, nor long remember” his victory, only that California Chrome lost.
There is no joy in Crownville. Mighty Chromie has struck out.