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June 10, 2014

Cowboy's galloping tirade helps nobody

If nothing else, give the quick-from-the-lip co-owner of California Chrome credit for causing the sporting masses to talk about horse racing again.

Now, it’s true that most of the discussion was negative, which is unfortunate. But if it’s also accurate that any publicity is good publicity, maybe it’ll prompt the sport of kings - and, in this case, cowboys - to have a serious discussion about the Triple Crown.

Steve Coburn, whose horse won the first two legs of racing’s annual run for immortality, was the epitome of sore loser when his colt couldn’t find his fabled passing gear at last weekend's Belmont Stakes and finished tied for fourth.

Coburn complained that other entrants - including Belmont winner Tonalist - had skipped one or both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before running on Long Island. His shocking assessment was that he'd lost to a bunch of “cowards” and “cheaters" - a claim that was preposterous and baseless. Who cheated? What rules were broken? Respectively, nobody and none.

It’s hard to say if followers of Coburn's colt were more disappointed by California Chrome’s loss or the owner's over-the-top display of poor sportsmanship. No horse has won the Triple Crown in 36 years, and a chance to watch history in the making was a lure for longtime racing fans as well as those just introduced to the $2 bet.

In the end history wasn’t rewritten, and plenty of tickets picking California Chrome to win fell to piles of debris left behind by more than 100,000 fans at Belmont Park.

Despite Coburn's inarticulate and illogical attempt to shift blame for his horse's finish, calmer minds should reflect on whether too much was asked of California Chrome to compete in a three-race grind while others took a pass.

Some say a Triple Crown has become an impossibility, pointing out that none of the past nine winners of the Belmont even raced in the Preakness.

Traditionalists, however, point back to the 1970s when three horses – Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed – accomplished the feat over six years.

Change is a constant in sports. Games and conditions evolve, making it hard to compare competitors from different eras.

Breeding - part science, part hunch - is a major factor here. Those around racing say today’s breed of thoroughbred is designed for speed, if not the endurance needed to run three marquee races in five weeks' time.

Perhaps, it has been argued, that the spring season set aside for the running of Triple Crown races should be extended, assuring that the best horses make it to the best races

Strangely, Coburn’s antics may do more harm than good in bringing together a varied group of stakeholders to discuss the state of the sport. While there may be some merit to his criticism, Coburn did little to galvanize a movement for change, even after he choked up on "Good Morning America" and told Robin Roberts how ashamed he was. Perhaps he’s made it even harder to bring a split group together.

Racing’s popularity has suffered over the long term, and its future, if it has one, is uncertain. Those who like to gamble have found an easier, more enticing alternative at the casino. In addition, there’s no simple way to predict the order of finish in a horse race. Handicapping is hard. Studying results and bloodlines is too complicated. Many fans will just as soon pick from a list of clever names and colors, which is little more than a prayer for luck.

A day at the track is a different sporting experience. Jockeys are among the bravest competitors. Their diminutive frames face peril in every sweep around the track. The horses are beautiful creatures that mix strength and style. Much the same with a swarm of oddly paired patrons who wear wealth and desperation for all to see.

Hopefully, a group comes together to discuss what’s in the best interest for the game, even though racing lacks a strong organizing body.

Should a soul-searching roundtable ever convene, the whiskey swigging co-owner of California Chrome is likely to be left on the outside, looking in. The outspoken Steve Coburn has earned that position at the track.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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