The upbeat, fairy-tale message of Triple Crown contender California Chrome has now been stained by a messenger.
Late Saturday afternoon, California Chrome lost his bid to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. Early Sunday morning, one of the owners, Steve Coburn, lost his common sense.
After the race Saturday, Coburn blasted racing's Triple Crown system for allowing fresh horses that have skipped an earlier leg of this classic thoroughbred trilogy to parachute in for the Belmont. Sunday morning, he didn't back off, nor did he tone down anything he had said.
He had used words such as "cowards" and "cheaters" in his reference to horsemen who didn't run all three legs — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. The Belmont winner, Tonalist, ran in neither of the first two races.
Coburn didn't repeat those words Sunday, but the words he did use just dug the hole deeper. California Chrome's efforts — he lost one race in the last two months, by two lengths, and had captured America's attention with his inexpensive breeding and underdog persona — are now colored by bad sportsmanship and whining.
Coburn's message is not without merit. His suggestion that only horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible for the next two legs of the Triple Crown has substance. And the very person in the gun sights of Coburn's rant, Tonalist owner Robert Evans, said after the race that he agreed with the concept that three major races in five weeks was too much.
Sometimes, it is not what you say, but how you say it.
Coburn said a lot of things. Badly.
During an interview with a network morning news show, Coburn repeated much of his Saturday rant, minus the "cowards" and "cheaters." Given a night to sleep on it, and now standing in the cold, harsh light of day, he said he stood by everything he said the night before.
Then he was off and running and stepping on his tongue some more.
He tried mightily to play the fairness card and likened what other horses had done to his Chrome to a triathlon, where some competitors skip the swimming and biking and just jump in for the run. That sounded good but is an apples-and-oranges comparison.
Then he waded deeper into the swamp.
"I'm 6 foot 2," he said. "What these guys did was like me playing basketball against a kid in a wheelchair."
The TV interview completed, he turned to a waiting group of a dozen or so members of the racing press, called a security guard to tell them he had nothing to say to them and marched off. Instantly, the old axiom of never spurning people who buy ink by the barrel — not as true as it once was, but still applicable — had been tested.
This was all happening against the backdrop of trainer Art Sherman, now aware of what one of his owners had said the night before, attempting damage control.
Sherman, meeting with the media a half-hour before Coburn went on TV nearby, said Coburn was a "new owner" and may have gotten caught up "in the heat of the moment." He referred to Coburn's use of the words "cheaters" and "cowards" as "a little out of context."
He said that California Chrome, breaking from the No. 2 post position, tangled right out of the gate with No. 3 Matterhorn. Matterhorn apparently stepped on the back of Chrome's right front hoof. That caused a long cut that, while possibly bothersome and perhaps a factor in the race, was termed "superficial" by Sherman.
Sherman made no excuses. He called California Chrome's Belmont "racing luck" and added that that's the way it is in the game.
"They were pinning him in a little," Sherman said. "The jocks know which is the horse to beat."
Sherman said he agreed that the Triple Crown format is tough and joked that racing might have to wait another 36 years for a Triple Crown winner.
"You have to have an iron horse," he said.
He said it would take two to three weeks for the cut on California Chrome's ankle to heal. After that, he said, he would give him seven weeks to rest and then start getting him ready for the Breeders' Cup, Oct. 31-Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. He did not rule out a healthy California Chrome running before that at Del Mar in the Pacific Classic.
"I'll go home now, to Los Alamitos," Sherman said. "I'm kind of a hero there, I guess."
He acknowledged that much had changed in his life in the last five weeks, but managed to give that some folksy perspective.
"I'm the same old Art," he said. "I got up this morning, put on my boots, went to work . . . although, I did win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness."
Down the street a few blocks, Coburn was soon offering his own brand of folksy perspective. His seemed to beg the question of whether all the horse's rear ends had run in the Belmont.