ELMONT, N.Y. -- When the air let out of Belmont Park (and this happened perhaps a half-minute BEFORE Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome died down the stretch and crossed the finish line in a dead heat for fourth at the Belmont Stakes), there was a very clear viewpoint humming through the dejected crowd: “Hey, that wasn’t fair.”
When the red-faced co-owner of California Chrome Steve Coburn was interviewed after the race, his emotions still raw he basically said the same thing.
“It’s all or nothing,” he grumbled. “This is not fair to these horses and to the people that believe in them.”
When Chrome’s gentlemanly 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman spoke, his words were more measured but the message was pretty much the same: “Hey that wasn’t fair.”
“The Triple Crown is an awful lot to ask from young horses,” he said.
You know what? It’s not fair. Horse racing’s Triple Crown demands that a horse win the most famous race in America, the Kentucky Derby; then, two weeks later, win the Preakness Stakes 600 or so miles away; and then, three weeks after that, beat a bunch of fresher horses in New York at the grueling Belmont, the longest race it will ever run (1 1/2 miles). That is thoroughly, entirely, even ludicrously unfair.
But here’s the part that’s easy to miss: It’s SUPPOSED to be unfair. That’s part of what makes the Triple Crown spellbinding. That’s part of why it stops America’s heart every now and again. That’s part of the reason more than 100,000 people poured into Belmont Park Saturday afternoon and created a scene more raucous and emotional than any Super Bowl or World Series or Final Four I’ve ever seen. It’s unfair. And yet, we can’t stop believing.
We can take a moment to recap the race: The unlikely horse California Chrome, out of an $8,000 mare and trained by a racing lifer few knew, was trying to become the first horse in 36 years and only the 12th horse ever to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. Belmont Park was madness -- so packed you couldn’t move, so loud you couldn’t think. People prayed and cheered and begged. All that hope, in the end, could not breathe life into Chrome. He looked flat from the start -- either that or his jockey Victor Espinoza ran a conservative race that made him look flat. People will argue that one for a while. Whatever the case, he hovered around fourth.
There seemed the briefest instant of promise when he headed into the stretch. He moved into third place and perhaps even second, the voice of the crowd rose in expectation and there seemed a chance. But that chance flickered and died quickly, and the last quarter of a mile was dismal to watch as Chrome faded into the tie for fourth. The crowd was stunningly quiet in the stretch run.
And, almost incidentally, a horse named Tonalist won the Belmont. There’s a pretty good chance you’ve never heard of Tonalist, and here’s why: He had not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes. The same is true for second-place finisher Commissioner.
The same is true, by the way, of Ruler on Ice and Drosselmeyer and Da’Tara and Rags to Riches -- four of the seven previous Belmont winners. This seems the recipe for Triple Crown spoiling now:
Step 1: Hold your horse out of the first two Triple Crown races.
Step 2: Enter him fresh into the mile-and-a-half Belmont grind.
Step 3: Break a few million hearts across the country.
Fair? No, that doesn’t seem fair. And Coburn, who won his way into American stardom by shooting from the hip, had plenty to say about the unfairness.
“I’m 61 years old and in my lifetime I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this,” Coburn griped.
And: “I look at it this way: If you can’t make enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races.”
And: “This is the coward’s way out.”
Coburn was speaking emotionally, and you can’t blame him for that. He’s a likable guy and he has pumped a lot of life and fun into the sport. But sore loser was a bad look for him. What he should have said was: “That’s racin’.” And then complained to his friends over drinks back home.
See, while there’s a fair point he’s making, there are a couple of problems with it. First, and easiest to see, nobody, perhaps in the history of racing, has been luckier than Steve Coburn. There have been countless people who have dedicated their lives to horse racing, dedicated their lives and their life savings to developing just one great racehorse. And they never got one. This guy skips the line and gets a winning genetic lottery ticket first try and now he’s complaining about fairness? Horse racing, like life, is unfair, and nobody ever cashed in quite like Steve Coburn himself.
Second: There is a reason that there has not been a Triple Crown winner in 36 years. It’s impossible. That’s not a byproduct of the Triple Crown or a small feature. No, that’s the whole point. It’s impossible. A 3-year-old horse cannot win the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. There’s not enough rest between races. Horses cannot handle the differences in distances. Horse owners will throw specially bred speed horses into the Preakness, and they will stack the Belmont with rested thoroughbreds ready to go the distance. It’s impossible.
And yet, every now and again -- sometimes four decades apart -- it happens. Every now and again, we witness a horse like Affirmed finish a nose ahead of Alydar. Every now and again we can see a tremendous machine like Secretariat leave the world behind. Every now and again, we see the impossible.
California Chrome couldn't do the impossible. He won’t be the last to fall short of that inconceivable yardstick. There have now been 13 near misses since Affirmed, horses that went into the Belmont with a chance at history and fell short -- including I'll Have Another, which was scratched due to injury. Coburn says there will not be a Triple Crown winner in his lifetime, and he might be right. After all, it’s impossible.
But Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza also was asked if a horse will win a Triple Crown in his lifetime. “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. And you know what? He might be right. There’s a reason we keep coming back to the track. Some of us like to believe nothing is impossible.