A few minutes before the start of Saturday’s Belmont Stakes — when Frank Sinatra Jr. was singing “New York, New York” and a high-voltage atmosphere gripped Belmont Park — a TV camera caught Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome, and his wife Carolyn crying in the stands.
It was an extremely touching moment, coming just before California Chrome’s attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed got the job done in 1978.
A few minutes later, however, after his horse had struggled home tied for fourth place, Coburn ruined not only the day but the Triple Crown adventure that his beautiful, speedy horse had taken him on.
As you’re undoubtedly aware by now, Coburn, when interviewed by NBC after the race, lashed out at the owners of the horses who had not run in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and had come to the Belmont with fresh horses. One of those fresh horses, Tonalist, came out a long nose in front of another fresh horse, Commissioner, to win a stirring renewal of the Belmont.
Instead of congratulating Tonalist’s connections, Coburn launched into a rant based on his allegation that the owners and trainers of the fresh horses had somehow sucker punched California Chrome (and Coburn, of course) and that they were “cheaters” and cowards.
As I watched it unfold on TV, I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’ve never seen anything like it in the 40-plus years I have been following thoroughbred racing.
I interrupt this post to tell you that this morning, Monday, Coburn went on “Good Morning America” and finally apologized for his unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Very ashamed of myself,” Coburn said, with Carolyn at his side. “Very ashamed. I need to apologize to a lot of people.”
Carolyn added: “I’m proud of him for coming up here and doing this. It was something we needed to do. Our story has given so much joy to so many people. I hope that this 30 seconds (of ill-tempered remarks) doesn’t destroy all that.”
…In the minutes after Coburn lashed out, I began to realize that I really shouldn’t be too surprised at what he had said. In the course of five weeks, the 61-year-old Coburn had established himself as a loudmouth and show-off, although, right up to the moment of his sour-grapes comments, he had seemed not only harmless but also engaging.
As we all know, however, those big personalities can sometimes go south in a hurry. And, oh, how quickly the complexion of things can change when one allows the bile in his brain to reach his lips.
Just after the interviewer cut away from Coburn, Carolyn apparently advised him to button his lips. His reaction was to wheel around and say angrily, “Well, I don’t care!”
Now, there, I submit, is a guy who is double stupid.
First, he didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and then he didn’t have the good sense to listen to his wife’s sound advice.
As I have advanced through life and nearly 30 years of marriage, I have come to appreciate more and more my wife Patty’s counsel in virtually everything I do — from what route to take when driving from Point A to Point B to the importance of listening to other people instead of planning what I’m going to say next.
It took me a while, but I came to realize that marrying well carries an obligation: Listening to your spouse and taking his or her advice very seriously.
I have to amend something: Coburn is actually triple stupid. If you’re the forgiving sort, you might say, “Well, he was wrong in what he said, but he was caught up in the heat and disappointment of the moment.”
Granted. But a night of sleep apparently didn’t bring any clarity to Coburn’s judgment, because on Sunday morning he was still firing with both guns on national TV.
…Here’s the deal. The same quality that made Coburn fresh and interesting — “rookie” racehorse owner who speaks his mind — is the same quality that quickly converted him into a heel.
The rookie part of the equation is particularly important; you could go a thousand years without seeing or hearing a veteran thoroughbred owner run off at the mouth like Coburn did.
As California Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, said insightfully, referring to Coburn:
“He hasn’t been in the game long and hasn’t had any bad luck.”
Coburn was convinced his and his horse’s magical run was going to continue at least through the finish line at Belmont Park. He couldn’t accept the fact that California Chrome lost because of one or more of the following reasons: he was tired from the first two races; he was poorly ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza; or he was hurting from a hoof injury he suffered at the start of the race.
The really bad part is that, as award-winning racing writer Bill Finley said in an ESPN.com story Sunday, California Chrome will henceforth be carrying on his back not only his jockey but Steve Coburn’s exposed personality.
“California Chrome will still have his fans,” Finley wrote, “but not as many as before. Coburn took care of that.”