By Steve Kallas
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While the focus Saturday evening at Belmont was correctly on California Chrome as he attempted to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, it was Tonalist who ran an unbelievable mile-and-a-half race to just beat out a dead game Commissioner.
Tonalist shattered, once again, the notion that a horse today can win three races in five weeks at three different distances in an era where horses are bred and trained for speed, not stamina and, generally speaking, rarely race (six or seven times a year for today’s top horses). California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth.
While one of California Chrome’s owners turned himself into a national fool in a matter of minutes, the focus should be on the race, not the self-proclaimed “Dumb-ass” owner.
HOW DID TONALIST DO IT?
Initially, there were a number of reasons why Tonalist would win, as I pointed out in a column last Friday where I picked Tonalist to win. With an excellent win at Belmont in the Peter Pan, tactical speed and top jockey Joel Rosario in the irons, Tonalist certainly was a horse who figured to have a good chance.
But he was monstrous in this long race. Three, four and even five horses wide throughout the first turn, Tonalist never got near the rail to save ground the entire race. Three and even four wide around that long, sweeping second turn (remember, Belmont is the only track in the country that is one lap for a mile-and-a-half), Tonalist had every reason to quit when he turned for home.
Indeed, for a second or two at the top of the stretch when California Chrome looked like he might join the fray, Tonalist seemed to hang just a touch, but then he came on again to nail a dead game Commissioner at the wire. I think with a better trip Tonalist would have been an easy winner, but he got there first and that’s all that matters.
By the way, Tonalist took an incredible amount of “late” money at the Belmont. While his morning line was 8-1, when he was 15-1 earlier on Belmont Day, some “experts” actually suggested that he couldn’t win because he wasn’t being bet. If you understand the game, you know that’s an absurdity on Belmont Day. In fact, he held at 11-1 for about an hour before post. But when the race was over, Tonalist had been hit from 11-1 to a low 9-1 ($20.40), an astounding drop given the handle on the Belmont.
Somebody (or a few people) bet something in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand to win on Tonalist just before post time. That’s the only way a horse could drop that much right before the bell rings.
WHAT HAPPENED TO CALIFORNIA CHROME?
He had a pretty good trip and, according to Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, Victor Espinoza, Chrome’s rider in all the Triple Crown races, gave him a good trip. While others, especially Randy Moss on the NBC show with Bailey, thought California Chrome was ridden poorly, it’s a difficult decision that Bailey tried to explain to Moss and the audience.
I agree with Bailey’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” analysis – that is, if Chrome had gone to the lead early, he would have been used that much more and maybe challenged that much harder by more than just long shot Commissioner, simply because he was going for the Triple Crown. In that case, he would have been criticized for going to the lead too soon, according to Bailey.
Second-guessing a losing rider’s ride is as old as horse racing itself.
In addition, while there should be no excuses in horse racing, California Chrome did grab a quarter and that could have compromised his chances. Espinoza, in separate interviews, essentially said that Chrome just didn’t have it at the Belmont like he did in the Derby and Preakness.
FROM NATIONAL GOOD GUY TO FOOL IN 2 MINUTES
In what can only be described as a bizarre turn of events, one of California Chrome’s owners, Steven Coburn, lost his mind and took the low road after the defeat. With Kenny Rice of NBC letting him rant on on national television, Coburn, one of the sorest losers ever, went on an incredible rant, saying that racing in one leg of the Triple Crown “was a coward’s way out.” He later told Yahoo! Sports that the connections of Tonalist were “cheaters” by only racing in one leg of the Triple Crown.
Sunday morning, the high-road trainer of California Chrome, Art Sherman, came to the barn and essentially told reporters that he thought Coburn would come in soon to apologize for what he had said the night before.
To the contrary, Coburn, clueless in New York, came in and reiterated what he had said the night before. Included in his rants, on two different occasions, Coburn said that having fresh horses racing against his horse, who had been through two grueling Triple Crown races, was like Coburn, at 6-foot-2, “playing basketball against a kid in a wheelchair.”
As disgusting as that is, there are probably a few kids in wheelchairs who could beat Coburn at basketball, but he wouldn’t know that. In addition, what kind of horsemen would knock his own horse, which had just won two Triple Crown races, by comparing him to a kid in a wheelchair?
It’s beyond stupid.
Right after the race, on national TV, it was clear to everyone but him that he was destroying all the good will he had built up in the prior five weeks. Coburn’s wife, on camera, tried to save him from himself by whispering something to him. He yelled at her, on camera, “I don’t care.”
Coburn eventually came to his senses, offering a tearful apology for all of his comments and antics during an interview on Good Morning America on Monday.
But the damage was still done.
HERE’S WHY HIS COMMENTS ARE SO STUPID
Presumably, Coburn has some understanding of the horse business. Tonalist was on the Kentucky Derby trail and was going to race in the Wood Memorial, the New York prep for the Derby.
But Tonalist got sick with a lung infection and was unable to make the Wood, and his intelligent trainer, Christophe Clement, instead decided to back off and get him healthy and into a good prep race, the Peter Pan, at Belmont.
Tonalist was awesome in the Peter Pan, winning by four lengths in the slop and making him a prime candidate for the Belmont. Under the Coburn theory, you should have to race in all three Triple Crown races. But what if a horse gets sick before a prep race, gets injured walking out of his stall a day or a week before the Derby, or gets a fever the day before or the day of the Derby, he should then be not allowed to participate in any Triple Crown race?
As they say at the racetrack, these are animals, not machines, something that seems to have escaped Coburn.
Again, beyond stupid.
A BETTER AND FAIRER WAY TO RACE THE TRIPLE CROWN
As discussed in last Friday’s column, it’s already well past the time to change the timing of the Triple Crown races.
While there are many on both sides of this argument, it no longer takes a “special” horse to win the Triple Crown. It takes a super horse and maybe one that won’t be born given the way horses are bred, trained and raced in the modern era. For a very interesting discussion on this issue, please listen to the 30-minute show I did with WFAN’s Jody McDonald last Thursday.
The analogy to pitchers pitching nine innings today is a good one. Nobody expects that to happen today. Indeed, a better part of the pitching analogy might be days of rest. Cy Young, Walter Johnson and many back in the early 20th Century pitched on two days of rest. Eventually, pitchers moved to three days of rest. Today they pitch on four days of rest. And we may be headed for a time where pitchers will pitch on five days of rest.
The bottom line is horses need more rest. They get it throughout their respective careers – unless they are trying to win the Triple Crown. It’s time to come into the 21st century. Though we’ll never know the truth, it’s fair to assume that if the prior Triple Crown winners were born into this generation and trained and raced like these horses are trained and raced, it would be very difficult for a number of them to win the Triple Crown.
It’s a totally different world.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRADITION?
I’m a traditionalist and a realist. The reality knows that the three races have been around since 1867 (Belmont), 1873 (Preakness) and 1875 (Kentucky Derby), respectively. Eleven times the Preakness was run before the Derby, which makes sense since the Preakness is shorter than the Derby. In 1917 and 1922 the Derby and the Preakness were run on the same day.
The Belmont has been run at five different distances throughout its history. When Sir Barton won the Belmont in 1919, he raced clockwise in the English tradition, because Belmonts until 1921 were raced “the wrong way.” Sir Barton’s Belmont was raced at a mile-and-three-eighths, not a mile-and-a-half. Sir Barton won the Preakness four days after he won the Kentucky Derby, which he won as a maiden.
The Preakness has been raced at seven different distances, from one mile to one-and-a-half miles. From 1894-1908, the Preakness was raced in Coney Island. Horses used to race after the Preakness and before the Belmont. In 1919, Sir Barton won the Withers Stakes in New York before he won the Belmont. Omaha lost in the Withers in 1935 before winning the Belmont and completing his Triple Crown. Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948) both raced and won between the Preakness and the Belmont.
The first 21 Kentucky Derby winners won at a mile-and-a-half, not a mile-and-a-quarter.
Things changed then. They should change now. That should be clearer than ever.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @NYSportsPlus
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