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The Sport of Fools

A Triple Crown dream dies and horse racing takes a heel turn — and nobody (but the loser) seems particularly mad about it

All during the weeks of hype and nonsense attending this year’s Belmont Stakes, there was some loose and hopeful talk about how an actual Triple Crown champion might reenergize a sport that has been accelerating into obsolescence for 30 years. So many racetracks are now cheap-ass casinos, their clubhouses and grandstands glorified slot parlors and OTB outlets past which actual living horses occasionally run. A Triple Crown winner, it was said, would draw the sallow-eyed, fluorescent-tanned, zombified customers away from the video poker screens and back out into God’s own sunshine.

By the end of the day on Saturday, when thousands of people were stranded in parking lots and on train platforms, it seemed that horse racing, or at least some of the people in it, had turned instead to another successful sports-entertainment model — WWE. The track suddenly had heels to hate. Maybe that will work. Maybe next year, one owner will run through a high-rent crowd full of women with birds on their heads, and more bow ties than you’d see if George Will wandered into a house of mirrors, and hit another owner with a folding chair! Before you know it, we’ll be back to chariot races.

Yes, on one of its most eagerly anticipated days in decades, the sport of kings turned into the sport of dicks. Not 10 minutes after his horse had finished a very game fourth in his attempt at the Triple, and not 10 minutes after a stirring finish between two lightly bet entries, Tonalist and Commissioner, California Chrome’s owner, Steve Coburn, proved himself one of the most towering front-runners ever seen on two legs. For a couple of months, he had wallowed in a warm bath of celebrity. The story about how he and his partner, Perry Martin, had lucked into the bargain that was California Chrome got told and retold, and Coburn was out there waving his Stetson at any crowd with more than four people in it. After the race, however, he went sailing off the rails, insulting virtually everyone involved in this year’s Triple Crown except, of course, himself.

“You know what, this is Chrome’s third big race. I’m 61 years old and I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this. I look at it this way: If you can’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races. It’s all or nothing. It’s not fair to the horses that have been running their guts out to have somebody to come up [like this]. This is the coward’s way out in my opinion. this is the coward’s way out.”1

This, of course, is more than the lament of a guy who finds that — for the first time in months — the gravy train has pulled out of the station without him. It’s the sentiment of someone who wants to undermine the whole purpose of concluding the Triple Crown with the Belmont. The Belmont is a radically different kind of race. It’s longer, and run on a sandy track. (In fact, 13 of the last 15 Belmont winners, including the last nine in a row, have been horses that did not even run in the Preakness.) Belmont is a race in which the unknown can be lying in wait for you. Most of all, though, the Belmont is a tough race because the Triple Crown is supposed to be tough, and the Triple Crown is tough because it’s supposed to be tough.

To his credit, California Chrome ran a very brave race. He split a hoof and he got an uncharacteristically timid ride from Victor Espinoza in the early going, which found him boxed in tightly in the middle of the pack. But, running in what has to have been a great deal of pain, Chrome finally managed to get clear, fighting his way into something that looked like contention at the top of the stretch. At that point, sadly, he’d clearly shot his bolt. In front of him, Tonalist managed to get a head in front of Commissioner, who’d been in the lead or around it for the entire trip. California Chrome ended up behind them, in a dead heat with Wicked Strong for fourth/fifth. What clearly seemed to Steve Coburn to have been an ambush set at Belmont for his horse really was little more than the Belmont doing what the Belmont is supposed to do — make a champion run like one. California Chrome did that. He just didn’t win the race.

“Why hasn’t anyone won a Triple Crown in [36] years?” asked Steve Cauthen, the last man to do it, shortly before Saturday’s race. “Because it’s not easy to do.”

Tonalist-Belmont-Tri

The three of them sat for hours at a table in the grandstand lobby. Ron Turcotte was in the wheelchair he has used since a racing accident in 1978, five years after he won the Triple Crown with Secretariat. (Turcotte himself has complained loudly and publicly about the lack of facilities for people with disabilities at Churchill Downs, which has had a bad few weeks.) Next to him, as elegant as ever, was Jean Cruguet, who won his Triple Crown in 1977 aboard Seattle Slew. And next to them was Cauthen, who’d guided Affirmed through three hysterical duels with Alydar a year later. There were three Triple Crown winners in five years back then.

“It’s funny,” said Cauthen. “Back when Affirmed did it, back in 1978, people were saying that maybe it’s too easy. You know? I mean, really? Now, they want to make it easier, spread it out a little more.”

It was a remarkable run of luck for the sport. Not only was the achievement notable, but all three horses were also charismatic. Of course, Secretariat simply was beyond category, and he still remains the single most towering figure in the history of racing. (At the signing on Saturday, Secretariat was the only one of the three horses who had gear to sell, everything from shot glasses to a copy of the official finish photo of his Belmont run, which retailed for a mere $750.) Seattle Slew gets a bit middled in this chronicle, but he still remains the only horse ever to win the Crown while undefeated, and he had an epic career of producing other horses. (His grandchildren, through A.P. Indy, were all over Saturday’s card, A.P. Indy apparently being the Jim Bob Duggar of thoroughbreds.) Cruguet’s voice gets very soft when he talks about Slew.

“I knew it from the first time I rode him,” Cruguet said. “I miss him very much. I used to go see him once a month. I would bring people to meet him.”

All three of these men are gray now. All three of their horses are dead. And, at the end of the day Sunday, they still shared something among the three of them that no other jockey in the world, not even Victor Espinoza, would ever know.

“It’s an obvious thing,” Cauthen said. “We all think our horses could beat the others. Turcotte, of course, he’s always saying, ‘You know, your horses wouldn’t even be good workout horses for mine.’ Only way you can prove that is on the racetrack.”

Turcotte-Secretariat-Tri

OK, so how stupid am I? Five hours before the race, Jean Cruguet — Triple Crown–winning jockey on what is my favorite racehorse of all time — talks about how much he likes Tonalist. Do I bet it? Of course not. A day later, I’m OK with it. A day later, Steve Coburn is still pissed and taking refuge in analogies he is going to regret for the rest of his life.

“You might compare this to a triathlon,” Coburn said in a trackside interview on Good Morning America at Belmont Park. “You know you’ve got to swim and you’ve got to bicycle and you’ve got to run … You don’t make it to run if you’re not going to do the other two … They hold out two [races] and then come back and run one,” said Coburn. “That would be like me at 6-2 playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair … You figure it out. You ask yourself, ‘Would it be fair if I played basketball with a child in a wheelchair?’”

I have some vague idea what he’s talking about, though (I suspect) being of a more discerning temperament, his horse may be confused. There are adjustments that could be made for the benefit of the horses whose owners want to go for the Triple Crown. For the safety of the animals, it may well be the right thing to do to space out these three races a little bit more. (Robert Evans said as much after his horse had won.) In doing so, you may get more people willing to race their horses in all three events. But the enduring charm of the Triple Crown is that each of the races has its own distinct character, and the Belmont’s is that it’s a marvelous environment for the unexpected. Of course there will be some owners who will cherry-pick their races. What of it? The idea that, for the sake of cheap thrills and TV ratings, we should trick things up and demand that horses either run all three races or none of them at all is ludicrous. The Triple Crown is always unattainable until a horse like Secretariat or Seattle Slew or Affirmed manages to attain it. That’s the whole damn point.

The Triple Crown is not one event. It is three unique events leading to a single achievement, closer to winning a Grand Slam in tennis or golf than it is to anything else. Different races, different tracks, different challenges, every year, and the last certainly always should include looking around the starting gate at Belmont and seeing horses you haven’t seen before. People came to Belmont on Saturday to watch a champion run. They got what they paid for. He just didn’t win, is all. 

This article has been updated to correct California Chrome’s place in the Belmont Stakes (he was in a dead heat for fourth/fifth place, not third/fourth place) and the name of Steve Coburn’s partner (Perry Martin).

Filed Under: horse racing, Triple Crown, Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew, Kentucky Derby

pierce-bio-shot

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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