June 8, 2014

And the Horse You Rode In On

I admit right from the start that I was not looking forward to California Chrome winning the Triple Crown. In fact, I'm not looking forward to anyone winning it, until the 40th anniversary year in 2018.  Not for any particular reason, really - I just think it's pretty darn cool that it's so hard for breeders, horses, trainers and jockeys to pull it together and win all three races.  I like that it's not something that happens every year or every couple of dozen or three years.

When the whole Chromie thing started up around the California horse who was name was drawn from a hat, who cost less than a used car,  the whole blue-collar working man's David against the horse establishment Goliaths, I took some interest but still was rooting for Wicked Strong, the horse with local ties.  By the time the Belmont pre-race show was on and we had the owner rallying the troops in their matching T-shirts and blathering on about Chrome being "America's Horse" I was prepared to actively root against him, as I did against the Dallas Cowboys when they were "America's Team" back in the day.

We were at Taste of Syracuse and had just finished our pulled pork sliders from Limp Lizard, and when I checked my phone to find the breaking news that Tonalist had won the Belmont, and the Triple Crown was safe for another year, there were high fives all around. 

I doubt anyone is high-fiving now after having listened to the whining coming out of Chrome's camp. According to co-owner Steve Coburn
I'm 61 years old and I'll never see another Triple Crown winner. 
It's not fair to the horses that have been in it since Day 1 (meaning, those who like Chrome ran in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness). It's all or nothing...This is not fair to the horses that have been running their guts out for these people who believe in them.
This is the coward's way out, in my opinion. If you've got a horse, run him.
I look at it this way: if you can't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't win the other two races.
Sunday morning came, and the bad attitude continued, with Coburn telling ESPN that, in effect, the Belmont should have been a three-horse race, with Chrome, Ride on Curlin and General a Rod, because they were the only horses that had run in the first two legs.  Perhaps his horse would have had a better chance then; if nothing else a third place finish would have been the worst  possible showing, instead of the fourth place tie.

And he also compared the rested Tonalist vs. the tired Chrome to Coburn at 6'2" playing hoops against a kid in a wheelchair, something he reiterated on Good Morning America.  According to reports, he also gave out his phone number so those who thought he was acting like a sore loser could  call him directly.

(I get the sense that, had Chrome lost to a horse that had run in the other two races, we would have been hearing some other sorry complaint or excuse, instead of acknowledgement that on this Saturday in June, his horse just didn't have what it takes to win.)

So what's going on here?  Well, someone who thought he had the real deal in fact has a pretty darn good deal: a hugely successful three year old racehorse who, like many before him, tried to win three races over three distances on three tracks in five weeks, but ended up winning only two.  That's happened to some pretty powerful owners in the past, and will likely happen to some pretty powerful owners in the future.  Lots of famous trainers have thought they had a Triple Crown horse, only to find out the didn't.  Most of them were gracious in defeat or at the very least knew to keep their woes-are-me thoughts to themselves.

The 'rules' such as they are, are fine: nothing says you have to enter all three races, and only those who think they have a chance enter all three. Nothing should force someone to enter their horse in all three races. The Triple Crown 'happens' when the same horse wins all three, but does it even exist otherwise?

  • if the same horse that won the Derby doesn't win the Preakness, should they cancel the Belmont? I mean, if you can't have a Triple Crown when the same horse doesn't win the first two races, the third race is silly, and meaningless, and why even bother, right?  
  • Or if you're an owner, and your horse doesn't win the Kentucky Derby, you would immediately take yourself out of contention for the Preakness, right? Because if you can't win the Triple Crown, why even bother, right?  

Of course not.  The races are linked in our hearts, and our minds, and in our past, and one day (again, rooting for 2018) in the future, they will be linked again when a truly great horse comes along -- maybe not a Secretariat, but an Affirmed, or a Citation, or a Seattle Slew, and we'll go nuts again at the wonder of a horse that can win at three different lengths, on three different tracks, over five weeks of a glorious spring.

But for all practical intents and purposes, they are three separate races, without requirements that if you're in for one, you're in for all. And that's as it should be.

And if, like California Chrome, your horse doesn't win all three, you bite your tongue, you turn your head away from the camera, and if someone shoves a microphone in your face, you mumble something like "it was a great run and I wish the outcome had been different..." and then you go back to the barn and thank your lucky stars for all that the horse has brought you thus far.

You thank your horse, and make sure he (or she) is OK, and you think for a moment about what might have been.

And then you start thinking about the next race...