Greg Eno

Cowardly or Cunning? Regardless, Belmont Entry Rules Must Change

In Horse racing on June 8, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Imagine Miguel Cabrera battling for another Triple Crown. He has the home run race pretty much locked up, and no one is going to catch him in the RBI category, either.

But then, on September 1, a player is called up from the minor leagues and becomes an instant sensation. He hits at a .340 clip for the month, eclipsing Cabrera’s BA. The player is declared the winner of the batting title, thus denying Miggy another Triple Crown.

Thankfully, this hypothetical can’t actually happen, because according to baseball rules, the rookie is ineligible for the batting title. A player must have 502 plate appearances in order to qualify.

But if those rules of eligibility weren’t in place, the rookie phenom would have been able to deny Cabrera the Triple Crown.

Ludicrous, right?

Steve Coburn, co-owner of race horse California Chrome (CC), might come off, at first blush, as chewing on some sour grapes, judging by his comments in the wake of Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. But Coburn makes sense and he’s absolutely right.

CC was denied the Triple Crown of horse racing when he finished a disappointing fourth in the Belmont, but that alone wasn’t the point of Coburn’s rant.

The winner, Tonalist, didn’t run in  the first two legs of the Crown—the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. And neither did several other horses in the Belmont.

Coburn didn’t pull any punches when discussing his feelings about Tonalist’s owners’ strategy, which has been used by six of the past eight Belmont winners.

“That’s the coward’s way out,” Coburn said. “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.”

I agree.

But on the other hand, no rules were broken. Tonalist’s handlers were merely playing within them, as unsavory as that may be to not only Coburn but to the maybe millions of fans who were rooting for CC to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Tonalist, the fifth wagering choice at 9-1 odds, was a fresh and rested horse making his debut on the Triple Crown trail. He last ran and won the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont dirt on May 10.

By the way, I want NBC’s Bob Neumeier to pick my numbers for my next lottery ticket. Neumeier was the only commentator on Saturday to go with Tonalist, largely because of the familiarity with the Belmont track—and the being rested thing.

Tonalist was making just his fourth career start on Saturday—and he picked up his second win by holding off Commissioner—another Triple Crown race rookie—by a head.

CC never really got going, eventually being forced to the outside, and the chestnut colt had no response when jockey Victor Espinoza tried to coax a stretch run bid for victory.

“(CC) was wore out, I think,” said Alan Sherman, son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman.

There were over 102,000 spectators packed into the track’s grandstands and infield, and from the moment CC made his way to the paddock, it was clear who the 102,000-plus were rooting for, overwhelmingly.

But the Triple Crown wasn’t to be, and though CC’s loss can’t be totally pinned to Tonalist and Commissioner’s freshness—CC suffered a gash to his right front leg which likely didn’t help matters—there’s no doubt, at least in Coburn’s mind, that it was a major factor.

The Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races, at 1.5 miles—a quarter mile longer than in Kentucky or Maryland. So the strategy to rest a horse and make its Triple Crown debut in New York is hardly new.

Not that Coburn agrees with that strategy—at all. He even took to calling Tonalist’s owners “cheaters” in an interview with Yahoo! Sports.

So the Triple Crown will have to wait another year. CC became the 12th horse to lose a chance at history at Belmont since Affirmed won all three legs in 1978.

Coburn, maybe letting emotion get the best of him after the race on Saturday, said that the rest of the Belmont field “ganged up on” CC.

“Our horse had a target on his back,” he said.

Well, in fairness to the rest of the field, of course CC had a target on his back. He won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. That makes you a target.

To again use a baseball analogy, it’s like the guy who is the potential last out in a no-hit bid. Yes, the pitcher wants to make some history, but the hitter wants to get a hit very badly. No team wants to be no-hit. You can’t blame the hitter for bearing down. That pitcher is going to have to earn his accolades.

But Coburn’s point about horses skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown to focus on the Belmont as being less than sportsmanlike is a good one.

This is why horse racing often doesn’t live up to the romanticizing that is made about it.

This is a cutthroat business, plain and simple. Owners are skipping Kentucky and Maryland for one reason and one reason only: money.

And as long as the rules don’t prevent what happened on Saturday, the strategy will be used again and again. It’s been successful six of the past eight years, don’t forget.

Coburn had voiced a similar complaint after the Preakness, saying only the 20 horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to compete in the other two legs. He also believed that horses skipping the Preakness should not be allowed to return in the Belmont.

Makes sense.

“There will never be another Triple Crown in my lifetime because of the way they do things here,” Coburn said about the Belmont.

Thirty-six years of horse racing are weighted behind Coburn’s statement.

CC is hardly Secretariat, Citation or Affirmed—the last three Triple Crown winners, who all won between 1973 and ’78—but Coburn’s point is spot on. There ought to be another look at the way eligibility is determined for horses in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

Despite Saturday’s letdown, Art Sherman couldn’t heap enough praise on his horse.

“The horse tried, that’s all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life, I’ll always have that in my heart for that horse,” CC’s trainer said.

After six Belmont “steals” in eight years, however, maybe it’s time to stop hearing owners speaking of moral victories when it comes to Triple Crown bids.

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  1. The last three Triple Crowns the typical short field:

    Secretariat 5
    Seattle Slew 7
    Affirmed 5

    California Chrome, Constitution, Samaraat, Wicked Strong and Totalist had the points to earn an entriy in the Belmont.

    There would have been 7 qualifiers this year but DANZA & INTENSE HOLIDAY dropped out the Sunday before leaving 5.

    So where did the other 6 hourses come from?

    The Belmont is an endurance race, not the cluster-F we witnessed yesterday.

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