The 2014 horse racing season ended with another near Triple Crown, as California Chrome slashed his right foreleg leaving the gate and could not, as the racing voices call it, “dig in.” Even with the bloodied foot he still finished a credible tie for fourth in the Belmont Stakes.
Then his co-owner, Wilford Brimley lookalike Steve Coburn, bitterly and irrationally denounced the connections of winner Tonalist for taking “the coward’s way out” by not competing in the first two legs of the Crown – Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
It was an unfair, hastily considered comment from a man who clearly is not the brains of the Dumb-Ass Partners. Tonalist had a doctor’s excuse for not running in the Derby or Preakness: a lung infection.
The sour-grapes rant by Coburn (for which he emotionally apologized – two days later) took the post-race focus off the impact of the injury to his horse. Trainer Art Sherman, showing a bit more sportsmanship than his boss, did not offer an excuse, saying only the obvious that “it didn’t help.”
It seems reasonable to think the hotfoot cost the two lengths that separated Chrome from the front. The question will be considered when Horse of the Year voting occurs.
Horse-racing’s kings were hoping for a Triple Crown to bring a wave of new fans to the sport, which always commands a spotlight until the race to the Triple Crown ends in May or June. Then horse racing exits the entertainment stage. Few of the 30 million people who watched Triple Crown races will care about the Travers or Breeders’ Cups or Horse of the Year.
Despite what Coburn and the Chromies may think, the problem is not that nobody has won the Triple Crown since 1978. The problem is that nobody cares about anything else.
Whether or not there’s a Triple Crown winner, horse racing slips from public consciousness until the next Derby season. The national media ignore it. You rarely see it mentioned even by the country’s most popular sports talker, Jim Rome, whose Jungle Racing has horses that have won graded stakes.
So during the racing offseason, the only news is bad news. The investigation of alleged animal abuse in Steve Asmussen’s barn, the alleged overuse of drugs in almost everybody’s barn.
Fortunately, for those few who care, Belmont Park has created an impressive card of races for “Stars & Stripes Day,” July 5: four stakes, headed by the $1.25 million Belmont Derby and the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational.
The summer racing calendar features a couple of venerable $1 million beauties: Haskell Invitational on July 27 and Travers on August 23. But Sherman will not enter California Chrome in either of those. The wounded colt goes to a pasture in northern California to heal and then train for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1.
Whatever tarnishing California Chrome’s image took on Belmont Day, he and his clumsy owner will have their chance at redemption. Unfortunately, nothing they do can measure up to almost winning the Triple Crown.