Somewhere between his post-race rant and his Monday morning apology, California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn may have stumbled onto something. His overheated reaction to losing the Triple Crown transferred the conversation about who, when and where from the backroom to the kitchen table.
Three races in five weeks is absurd. Some would even suggest abusive.
So why not talk about it? Why not now? Chrome’s humble roots and quest to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years was a charmer. The everyman stories of Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin were irresistible. For the past several weeks, a drug-addled industry diminished by track closings, a dwindling and conflicted fan base – along with the perception that racing is all about the betting, not an appreciation for the majesty of the horses – enjoyed a rare and impressive surge.
The public paid attention in record numbers. More than 102,000 spectators crammed into the stately track in Elmont, N.Y., for Saturday’s event. Another 20.6 million viewers watched from home, accounting for the second-largest audience in Belmont history and nearly tripling last year’s numbers. Sacramento’s television rating of 19.2 and 39 audience share trailed only the 21.1/38 figures recorded in Louisville. And for those who didn’t wager, who were simply captivated by the spectacle and drama of the chase, it didn’t cost a dime.
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In the end, of course, the slipper didn’t fit, with Chrome faltering due to fatigue or an injured hoof. Or perhaps both. Conjecture and controversy will linger as long as replays are available. While an emotional Coburn complained about an unfair playing field and lobbied for restricting Triple Crown contenders to horses that qualify for the Kentucky Derby and compete in the Preakness, the owner of Belmont winner Tonalist, Robert S. Evans, calmly addressed the much larger issue: the unreasonable demands the horses are subjected to because of the compact schedule.
“I think it would be better to spread it out a little bit,” Evans said in the aftermath of Chrome’s fourth-place (tie) finish. “It’s better for the horses, and it would be better to promote it (the Triple Crown).”
Aside from the obvious financial benefits that would be gained by expanding the schedule, this is the modern era. With an assist from the pooch-loving French, the American public has become increasingly sensitive to the treatment of animals and the value of household pets. There are more pet stores than churches in some neighborhoods. Earlier in the week, Pope Francis, in a surprisingly narrow and outdated perspective, urged married couples to spend more time making babies and less time caring for their animals.
Chrome’s mass appeal is partly attributable to that growing affection and appreciation for animals, and while traditionalists argue for retaining the current racing calendar for the sake of tradition, sports routinely adjust. Lights were installed at Wrigley Field. NFL games are played on Thursdays. The NBA includes additional off days during the championship series to reduce the physical strain on players.
“Horses are just like any other athlete,” said Dr. Susan Stover, a UC Davis veterinarian and one of the nation’s leading experts on equine health and catastrophic injuries, “and I worry for these horses that race in all three legs (of the Triple Crown). We’re asking them to maintain peak performance for a long time without any period for recovery. I think we have much to gain by extending the schedule. We can make things better.”
Dr. Rick Arthur, the California state equine medical director and another advocate for more spacing between the three races, cites the lack of a national governing body as a complicating factor. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont are run by Churchill Downs, Pimlico and the New York Racing Association.
“It is a tight grind to have these races back to back,” Arthur said. “It’s like somebody trying to run the Boston Marathon and coming right back to run the New York Marathon. I think everybody in the industry understands this. The spacing of the races has, in fact, been changed through the years. But it’s a matter of getting everyone to agree on how to do it.”
This is where Chrome steps back in, where the Cinderella story suggests a better ending, when Coburn and Evans should promote a meeting of the minds.
“I think people will look at this,” Arthur said. “These are young horses. The laying-in-wait strategy is more and more prominent. Absolutely, if it were up to me, I would space out the races more.”