Billy Reed says Coburn rant 'worst display of poor sportsmanship - News, Weather & Sports

Billy Reed says Coburn rant 'worst display of poor sportsmanship' he's ever seen

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By Billy Reed
WAVE 3 News Contributor

I am glad that Steve Coburn, the clueless and classless co-owner of California Chrome, finally apologized for his unconscionable and indefensible attack on fellow owner Bob Evans only moments after Evans' Tonalist had thwarted Chrome's bid to win the Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

In almost 55 years of covering sports, it was the worst display of poor sportsmanship I've ever seen. Coburn accused Evans of cheating and "taking the coward's way out" because he didn't run his horse in either the Derby or Preakness, the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. It was as ugly as ugly gets.

He could have apologized Sunday morning, but, instead, doubled down on the previous day's fiasco. But then here he was Monday morning, choking back tears as he apologized not only to the Tonalist crew, but also to Chrome's fans and the entire racing world.

It was a belated first step, but no more. In the racing world, Coburn is pretty much toast. Everywhere he goes, he's get cold shoulders, turned backs, and worse. That's the price – and it's not an unfair one – for ignorantly and maliciously attacking a man's reputation. Coburn is now to thoroughbred racing what Donald Sterling is to the NBA.

One of the charges against him is that his rant detracted from the winners' moment in the sun. Yet NBC, which has the television rights to the Triple Crown races, deserves at least some of the blame for that.

Instead of following its usual post-race format – a horseback Donna Brothers interviewing the winning jockey, expert analysis, etc. – NBC this time went right to Coburn, who was in full rant even before the horses got back to the finish line to be unsaddled.

NBC could have gone to Coburn – or a tape of his reaction – after the trophy and carnations were presented to Evans. Instead, the show's producer decided to go with Coburn. It was a tough call, I'm sure, and I can see arguments on both sides. But had NBC delayed the Coburn reaction instead of showing it immediately, the public's reaction might not have been muted, at least a bit.

Unfortunately, some viewers unfamiliar with racing – including, most notably, columnist Christine Brennan of USA Today – actually bought Coburn's argument that the Preakness and Belmont should only be open for the horses who ran in the Derby. But that is illogical to the point of being absurd.

Some background is in order.

It's always a good idea to be wary of analogies between racing and other professional sports because racing is simply a different animal, so to speak. Unlike the NBA, NFL, NHL and major-league baseball, it is not a team sport. The competitors are individual contractors who have no guaranteed contracts. It's up to each owner and trainer to place horses where they have the best chance to succeed – and to earn money.

Also, racing has no central governing agency that brings all the sports diverse groups – track owners, horsemen, jockeys, veterinarians, backstretch workers – under one umbrella. Rules and customs differ from state to state. The Breeders Cup is the closest thing the sport has to a post-season playoff like the ones we see in the professional team sports.

The Triple Crown is a loose coalition involving the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. When Sir Barton became the first 3-year-old to win all three classics in 1919, the term "Triple Crown" hadn't even been invented. That didn't happen until the 1930s, when a sports journalist – either Charlie Hatton or Bryan Field, take your pick – coined the phrase.

From 1948, when Citation won the Triple Crown for Calumet Farm, until 1973, when Secretariat ended the 25-year draught, the sports world – all of American society, really – changed dramatically. Because of the onset of television, Madison Avenue became synonymous with commercialism and marketing. Unfortunately for racing, it was slower to react to these changes than the other professional sports.

The Derby didn't impose a limit on its field until 23 horses went into the starting gate for the 100th Derby in 1974. After that, the track decided the field would be limited to the 20 horses with the most earnings in graded stakes races. At some point, Pimlico, the home of the Preakness, imposed a 14-horse (or one starting gate) limit on its field. The Belmont never has had to worry about the size of fields because of attrition and its daunting distance of a mile and a half.

After racing produced three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s – Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978 – the marketing geniuses got to work and devised a trophy that would go to any 3-year-old that swept all three races. The first one was to go to Spectacular Bid, but he got upset in the Belmont due to a safety pin in his foot and a pinhead (Ronnie Franklin) on his back.

To this day, the trophy has never been presented.

In 1980, a young trainer named D. Wayne Lukas has a colt named Codex. In those days, trainers had to fill out a separate entry form for each of the Triple Crown races. Lukas signed up Codex for the Preakness and Belmont, but not the Derby – either because he didn't think the colt would be ready or because he simply overlooked it.

Whatever, the Triple Crown tracks agreed to come up with a common entry form. This simply was a bookkeeping matter that made it easier for all concerned. There was never any thought given to limiting the Preakness and Belmont fields only to horses who had run in the Derby because that would eliminated a lot of horses who got sick or injured on the way to the Derby, who weren't mature enough to run a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May, and whose owners might want to point for the Preakness or Belmont because they valued one of those races more than the Derby.

The traditional order was challenged in 1985, when New Jersey track owner Robert Brennan put up a huge bonus for any horse that swept his version of the Triple Crown – Garden State Jersey, Kentucky Derby and Jersey Derby. This was created specifically for a very fast colt named Spend A Buck after he won the Garden State.

Nobody paid much attention until Spend A Buck went wire-to-wire at Churchill Downs. Then, much to the horror of the racing establishment, owner Dennis Diaz opted for the Jersey Derby instead of the Preakness

This led to the formation of Triple Crown Productions, a marketing partnership designed to combat Brennan's insurrection. It scored a coup by talking Visa into putting up a lucrative bonus that would go to a Triple Crown winner. The credit-card company also agreed to fund a consolation prize, of sorts, for the horse amassing the most points in the three races – an incentive for horsemen to say on the Triple Crown trail even if they didn't win the Derby.

That effectively eliminated the upstart Brennan and injected a badly needed dose of excitement into the Triple Crown. Sadly, for whatever reasons, the Visa Triple Crown Challenge – a good idea – eventually petered out.

The connections of every Derby winner since the 1930s know that they're going to face "new shooters" in the Preakness and/or Belmont. Trainers based in Maryland have frequently skipped the Derby to point for the Preakness. Ditto for trainers based in New York regarding the Belmont. To this day, the Belmont means as much, or more, than the Derby to the old-money owners based in New York.

As fate would have it, in fact, Evans' father, Thomas Mellon Evans, owned Pleasant Colony, who won both the Derby and the Preakness in 1981 for trainer Johnny "The Fat Man" Campo. But he came up short in a Belmont won by an undistinguished colt named Summing. Did Evans complain? Of course not. He knew it was just part of the game.

So it's a tad ironic that 33 years later, Evans' son would play the role of spoiler for California Chrome. He deserved to be recognized as a champion, not a cheater. Coburn knew how the game was played when he nominated Chrome to the Triple Crown. But his ego got the better of him. This was a guy, after all, who had predicted a Triple Crown for Chrome before the Derby – and who strutted around before the Belmont, waving his hat to the crowd and acting like it was all about him, not the horse.

Every year owners nominated anywhere to 350 to 400 colts and fillies to the Triple Crown. They do that to keep their options open. Most of the nominees quickly eliminate themselves because they're not fast enough or mature enough. In the prep races, some horses fall by the wayside because they're simply not good enough or because they come down with illness or injury.

It's easy to come up with examples of why Coburn's idea is so flawed. Let's say, for example, that you own a colt who has compiled more than enough points to make the Derby field and is picked as the post-time favorite. But on the morning of the Derby, he comes up with a slight cough that leads the trainer to scratch him for precautionary reasons.

It's impossible to make a logical argument that such a colt should be barred from the Preakness or the Belmont. It's just as illogical to force horsemen to run a horse at a mile and a quarter before he's ready. That would amount to cruelty, and PETA would be all over it quicker than you can say, "Conquistador Cielo."

He was the colt that, in 1982, won the Belmont by 14 lengths only five days after winning the Metropolitan Mile. His trainer, the immortal Woody Stephens, didn't run him in the Derby or Preakness because of some physical problems. He went on to be named the sport's "Horse of the Year."  Does anybody really want to make the case that he shouldn't have been allowed to run in the Belmont?

Silly as it was, however, Coburn's argument about the Triple Crown wasn't nearly as offensive as the outrageous way he insulted Evans. His belated apology is to his credit. But racing people have long memories and no patience for a lout who has such poor taste and bad manners.

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