California Chrome came up short in his bid to win the Triple Crown on Saturday. The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes just didn’t have the closing kick after jockey Victor Espinoza brought him off the rail and around to the outside to try and finish. California Chrome ended up tied for fourth, and then his owner Steve Coburn tore into the entire Triple Crown system in a post-race interview.
“This is the coward’s way out,” was the most inflammatory phrase in the Steve Coburn interview. The owner referred to rules that require horses to go through extensive qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, but then don’t apply that same standard to entries for the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. The result is fresh horses coming in and a tired Triple Crown aspiration not able to beat them.
Let’s set aside Coburn’s incredibly boorish sportsmanship, and his idiotic comment that “it’s not fair to these horses” (note to Steve: horses don’t have a conception of fairness, and certainly not the meaning of the Triple Crown. It’s we the people that have that.) Let’s instead ask whether or not he has a point.
I have mixed feelings. Let’s start by saying that putting Coburn’s rules in place—that only the twenty horses that qualify to run the Kentucky Derby can run any Triple Crown race, would drastically diminish the achievement of winning all three. Every Triple Crown winner in history has had to beat fresh horses at the Preakness and the Belmont—not as many as today, but the basic rules were still in place.
What made a Triple Crown great—as pointed out ESPN pundit and horse racing enthusiast Tony Kornheiser today on Pardon The Interruption—was that the horse who did it beat all comers, not just the same 19 horses three straight times. In this regard, I have little sympathy for Coburn’s points, even if he had made them in a classier manner (which, in fairness to him, he had prior to his post-Belmont hissy fit).
But Coburn’s commentary strikes a nerve at the real problem in horse racing and it’s the lack of a cohesive organization of all its races, not just the Triple Crown. In any other sport—including the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which is most analogous to horse racing—we have a full season where we can get to know contestants, become familiar with the storylines and watch it build to a championship. And then we watch them come back the next year and try it again, further building the story and fan interest.
There’s no reason horse racing shouldn’t be the same. The three-year old thoroughbreds that run the Triple Crown races (along with all the good Derby prep races that mark the first four months of the year) are just starting their racing careers. Why aren’t we hearing more about them? It would be akin to the NFL introducing the great quarterback draft class of 2012, and then after the first run, never hearing the names of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson or Ryan Tannehill ever again. And having to start over the next year.
Or let’s go to another analogy. Right now, most sports fans are tuned into LeBron James going for his own version of the Triple Crown, as he tries to lead the Miami Heat on a three-peat. We’re interested because we’ve followed LeBron up to this point. We know what he went through and what his team went through.
Just as important, we know the competitors. We know the San Antonio Spurs were “thisclose” to beating Miami last year and now are taking another shot at it. We have all this because basketball—like every sport—is organized. Would we feel the same about LeBron’s “Triple Crown” if he faced 15 new teams in the playoffs every year that we never heard of and had no idea if they were any good. We might be interested, but our interest wouldn’t sustain itself. That’s precisely the problem horse racing has.
There is no reason horse racing shouldn’t have some sort of a championship pursuit. The Breeders’ Cup, run every November, can serve as a building block. Let those be true championship races, the definitive measuring stick of the best horse in each age bracket for any given year. Put in place an organized system of races, easily comprehensible to fans who might be only causally interested in horse racing, so they can track who is on the road to qualifying.
Ensure that you get the best horses from all the major circuit. New York, Florida, SoCal and Kentucky would be sort of the “power conferences” and then mix in a few “at-large” spots for the best horses from places like Illinois, Maryland, Louisiana and Arkansas. Then you have a system in place where people can choose to follow just one track if they want, knowing that their best horse is going to the championship round. That’s the framework for building interest in college football, and last I checked, that sport isn’t hurting for money.
Once you have a fun, easy to follow championship format in place, horse racing’s natural appeal—betting—can drive interest further. What if you got NBC Sports Network to televise a Pick-Six of the Week every Friday night from a major track? The network could promote the six races—the favorites and longshots—the same way a network would push the late Sunday afternoon NFL game each week.
Think about how popular this might be in sports bars, with their Friday night crowds, and bars able to establish pools. Horse racing is an ideal sport to watch in that kind of environment—two minutes to race, 15-20 minutes to go back and socialize, then two more minutes to race. We live in a sports world where everyone wants to make things faster and insists the viewing public doesn’t have a long attention span. What sport is better suited to appeal to that than horse racing?
Those are the possibilities that are out there for horse racing. But this is an industry overrun by its own selfishness, shortsightedness and greed. No one works together, everyone is just out for themselves and their short-term interest. And ironically, it’s costing them all a lot of money.