McCollum's Column: Breaking down the irony and the comical of the Belmont Stakes

The discussion and debate surrounding why California Chrome did not win the Triple Crown is alternately ironic, comical and dead-on.

 

When California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, its owner, Steve Coburn, was admired by the media for his eccentricity and his candor. When California Chrome failed to win the Belmont Stakes and the frustrated owner went on a rant ­— calling those who did not enter all three Triple Crown races as taking the “cowards way out,” — he was lambasted for a lack of class and too much candor.

Certainly, Coburn is not a candidate for any diplomat corps, and he and the timing of the rant struck some as “sour grapes.” Maybe he went a bit over the top with what he said. In hindsight, maybe Coburn should have begun firing his verbal salvos before the Belmont.

But if you applaud a guy one minute for being colorful, brash and candid, don’t criticize him the next for being colorful, brash and candid. If reporters are going to interview someone immediately after a competition, don’t be taken aback if a person avoids “cliches,” “coach speak” and actually says what he really thinks.

It’s interesting how some sports encourage and prop themselves on smack talk and others have more of a gentleman’s code. And horse racing falls into the category as an elite, gentleman’s sport. Therefore, it’s disconcerting for some to watch a fellow (Coburn), who is a weird combination of Bobby Knight, Charles Barkley and Wilford Brimley, criticize the system and ruffle feathers.

There are a lot of reasons why horses have not won the Belmont — including weather, a bad ride, the mile-and-a-half distance, bad luck and poor strategy, which came into play in California Chrome’s case. Jockey Victor Espinoza allowed some frontrunners, who did not have great speed, to dictate the early pace of the race and held California Chrome in the pack — where he was not comfortable and may have gotten kicked. He then was forced to the outside in a futile effort to catch the leaders down the stretch.

But Coburn was right on the principle.

It’s another irony that a sport that prides itself so much on fairness (to the point of assigning extra weight to some horses to balance the field to allow a more even-handed race has such an unfair structure to its marquee events.

Horses have to qualify for the Kentucky Derby through a series of stakes races. A horse that has never been in a race or has been bred specifically for distance or has been entered in only a few races can enter the Belmont, the longest of the three races. Some owners who have horses in the Derby hold them out of the Preakness and rest them and train them for the mile-and-a-half Belmont.

To win the Triple Crown, California Chrome would have had to win three high-profile races against the toughest competition (among horses, owners, trainers and jockeys) in three different track settings in five weeks. Normally, thoroughbreds are raced no more than once a month.

With the number of horses and training techniques nowadays and the delicate nature of the animals, winning the Triple Crown is the toughest major feat to accomplish in sports (rivaled possibly by the Grand Slam in golf).

Tonalist, the Belmont winner, had run only three previous races, the last on May 10 and none against the quality of the field in other races. None of the three top finishers in the Belmont had run in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

If the field for this year’s Belmont consisted of those horses that ran both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the race would be among three horses — hardly sexy enough for television, the racing industry, Belmont officials or wagering.

It’s like a runner winning a triathlon after joining the race on the final leg while passing up the swimming or the bicycle ride or both. It’s like a basketball team playing only a couple of conference games, then getting a bye to the championship game in the conference tournament and an automatic NCAA bid.

In most sports, the team or individual who accomplishes the most over the course of the season receives a bye, the rest being a reward. The reward for winning the Kentucky Derby is being almost obligated to win two more races.

If you want to determine the best horse and mount it on a pedestal, it’s a terribly flawed system. But it’s a system that has been accepted as “just the way it is for decades.”

It’s ironic that a failure to win an event is prompting as much or more post-race debate and conversation as a victory.

Under the current system, will there ever be another Triple Crown winner?

Never say never, but don’t bet on it.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)

 

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