ELMONT, N.Y. – Steve Coburn's exit from Belmont Park was part class, part ass.
After watching his beloved horse, California Chrome, finish tied for fourth in the Belmont Stakes and extend horse racing's Triple Crown futility to 36 years and counting, Coburn made a spectacle of himself on the way out of the massive old track. He schmoozed with the public and he napalmed the winners in varying turns.
He shook every hand, posed for every picture – including one with LL Cool J – and thanked every fan who had something kind to say about California Chrome's glorious spring. At one point he stepped into a box on the railing of the clubhouse, took off his cowboy hat and shouted to the patrons below, "Hey, everybody! Thank you so much! Thank you for your support!"
That drew applause from a crowd that was otherwise deflated by the Belmont result. The populist Coburn is a fun guy.
But the pop-off Coburn is a guy whose act has worn thin after five weeks of shamelessly hamming it up in a spotlight he'd never known before. After thanking the fans, he went back to ripping the people behind winning horse Tonalist.
Coburn called Tonalist's connections "cowards" on NBC shortly after the race, and he continued the assault to anyone who asked him a question. The feel-good story of the spring ended with a finger-jabbing fusillade of profanity.
"They're a bunch of goddamn cheaters," Coburn told Yahoo Sports. "If your horse doesn't even have the points to run in the Kentucky Derby, he shouldn't be able to run in the Triple Crown. They're goddamn cheaters."
Asked how much this defeat hurt after watching Chrome win six straight races, Coburn said, "It hurt a lot because this isn't my horse, this is America's horse. … We've still got the best horse in the United States."
Between photos and hugs, Coburn kept up the assault to any reporter who came up to ask a question. At one point his wife Carolyn slapped him on the arm in an attempt to hush him up. He ignored her.
[Slideshow: Triple Crown winners]
Finally, outside the clubhouse, Coburn and his party were herded toward a black Mercedes van that was waiting for them.
"Hey, Guido!" Coburn shouted to the driver. "We need to get going! We need to drink whiskey!"
And then he was gone, almost certainly never to be seen again on the Triple Crown scene.
This is a sport rife with one-hit wonder ownership groups, trainers and jockeys. California Chrome's group had its moment, and it was a great one – but the last impression left by Coburn will have the bluebloods of the sport clucking with disdain. They won't miss this loose-cannon common man.
Despite the petulance, his sore-loser rant is rooted in a truth that makes the Triple Crown fundamentally flawed: it is rigged against the best horse. While California Chrome was grinding through his third race in five weeks, Tonalist was running for just the second time since February. The lightly-raced colt had only started four times prior to the Belmont, and had not won a race of any significance until taking the Peter Pan Stakes May 10 here at Belmont. That stamped him as a contender in this race.
That's why Tonalist could not have run in the Derby even if owner Robert Evans and trainer Christophe Clement wanted him to. Under the points system used to qualify for the Derby, Tonalist wasn't even close to making that field.
Yet he was able to come back here and play spoiler – and he had company. Second-place finisher Commissioner also has been out since the Peter Pan Stakes. Third-place Medal Count ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness. Wicked Strong, which finished in a dead heat for fourth with California Chrome, also ran the Derby but skipped the Preakness.
"I'll never see – and I'm 61 years old – another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this," Coburn told NBC.
I agree with him. The format needs to be changed.
Coburn continued: "It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day One. If you don'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 all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for all the people who believe in him. This is a coward's way out, in my opinion."
Evans and Clement are not cowards. They're opportunists, taking what the sport gives them.
"There's something to be said about running a fresh horse on familiar ground," Clement acknowledged. "… I'm sure I will manage to find a way to sleep tonight despite being a disappointment."
After the race and before Coburn's rant, the disappointment was palpable in the box seats occupied by California Chrome's people.
Trainer Art Sherman, 77 years old and competing in a spot he scarcely could dream of his entire career, was wordless for a while after the horses hit the wire. His hands were still at his side for more than a mile, as he watched California Chrome struggle for running room amid the forward pack of horses. When Chrome loomed alongside the leaders heading off the far turn and the grandstand roared, Sherman raised his hands to his chest in anticipation – but they never moved again as his horse failed to fire.
"He just wasn't good enough," Sherman said to nobody in particular, then shook his head. "He just wasn't good enough today."
In the adjacent box, co-owner Perry Martin – the quiet and reserved half of Dumb Ass Partners – never once unfolded his hands as he watched the race. When his horse surged in the Kentucky Derby, he had clapped and yelled "Goodbye, everybody! Goodbye!" Saturday, he said nothing.
In the dejected aftermath, Martin wiped his forehead with a napkin, then wiped his eyes. Then he exhaled. Nobody said a word.
Asked what it felt like to not see the devastating kick that had carried his colt to six straight wins, Martin said, "I'm still waiting for it to happen."
Back in Sherman's box, it took the trainer several minutes to even think about who won the race. He asked his wife Faye for her program and scrutinized it for a moment before tapping his finger on the No. 11 horse, Tonalist.
Two boxes down, Steve Coburn was starting to roar on that sore subject. He had a point, but he fired at the wrong target.
Blame the Triple Crown itself. That's what beat California Chrome, more than Tonalist.
TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
Samuel D. Riddle
Ben A. Jones
Mrs. J.D. Hertz
Ben A. Jones
William Turner Jr.
Karen L. Taylor
Lazaro S. Barrera
Harbor View Farm