Steve Coburn is (Mostly) Right

Leaving aside his emotionalism and frustration, his core argument has merit.


steve-coburn-california-chrome-ownerI had intended to tune in to watch California Chrome make an attempt to win horse racing’s Triple Crown for the first time in a generation. Alas, I lost track of time and was out on a run when the race started. I returned home just as the race ended and saw from my Twitter feed that the horse came in a disappointing fourth and that his owner, who consensus had appearing a striking resemblence to Wilford Brimley, went on an epic rant about the injustice of it all.

He hasn’t let up.

ESPN (“Steve Coburn continues rant“):

[I]n an interview with Yahoo! Sports Saturday, Coburn called the horses that skipped the first two races of the Triple Crown and just raced in the Belmont Stakes “cheaters” who took the “coward’s way out.”

On Sunday, the 61-year-old Coburn said he had no regrets about his comments Saturday and continued to rail against the Triple Crown system, which allowed Tonalist to race Saturday even though the horse didn’t compete in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes.

“It says Triple Crown. You nominate your horse for the Triple Crown. That means three,” Coburn said in the track-side interview with ESPN on Sunday. “Even the Triple Crown trophy has three points on it. So when you earn enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby should be the only 20 allowed to run in the Preakness and the Belmont for the Triple Crown.”

He also made a questionable analogy of why Tonalist’s participation Saturday was unfair.

“These people nominate their horses for the Triple Crown and then they hold out two [races] and then come back and run one,” Coburn told ESPN. “That would be like me at 6-2 playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair. They haven’t done anything with their horses in the Triple Crown. There were three horses in this race that ran in the first two — California Chrome, Ride on Curlin and General A Rod — none of the other horses did.  You figure out. You ask yourself, ‘Would it be fair if I played basketball with a child in a wheel chair?”

Coburn made the analogy in both interviews Sunday morning. He was asked in the “Good Morning America interview” if he considered the comparison offensive.

“No, I’m just trying to compare the two,” he said. “Is it fair for me to play with this child in a wheelchair? Is it fair for them to hold their horses back?”

Coburn said he has no problems if people label him a “sore loser” and even proceeded to give out his phone number so people can call him with their complaints.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that comparisons to a kid in a wheelchair are both cringeworthy and illogical. Further, given the extant rules, neither the owners of Tonalist nor the other horses who skipped previous legs are “cheaters.” And, it should go without saying, neither are the horses.

Leaving the emotionalism and frustration of Coburn’s word choice, aside, however, his core argument strikes me as perfectly legitimate. That is: If horse racing is going to have a Triple Crown, then owners should be obligated to run their horses in all three races, barring injury, and horses who don’t compete in a given race should be ineligible to compete in later Triple Crown races.

Not only is picking and choosing among the events a competitive advantage but, more importantly, it’s bad for horse racing. When I was a kid, the sport, along with boxing, was a much bigger deal than it is now. Events were routinely shown on the over-the-air channels, so people were more familiar with the participants, anyway. And, for whatever reason, the 1970s were the last golden age of the sport, with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all winning the Triple Crown.

Nowadays, only the Kentucky Derby retains independent cultural significance. Not only is it an unofficial kickoff to summer but the pageantry surrounding the race generates national interest. And, of course, the winner of that event becomes a potential Triple Crown winner, generating interest in the Preakness and, if s/he wins there, too, makes the Belmont a big deal.  Once the Derby winner loses, all but hard core horse racing enthusiasts tune out until the Derby rolls around again.

The Triple Crown is something of an odd event, in that the three races are considerably different. The Belmont, in particular, is vastly longer than the other races, making it unlikely that a horse who won the two shorter races will prevail. But it’s much harder, still, if long distance specialists are allowed to enter the Belmont after having skipped the other two legs. Not only are they more suited for that race to begin with, but they’re fresher. Given that the Triple Crown, not the individual races, is what draws casual fans, it’s really bizarre to me that the governing authorities allow it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I’m not sure I agree that Coburn has a point.

    First, its worth noting that there really isn’t such a thing as a “governing authority” for the Triple Crown. For the most part, it’s just the title given to a horse that happens to win the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in the same year, a title that was coined by a sportswriter in 1931, at least according to Wikipedia. Each of these races is run by the authorities in charge at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont and they have their own rules. Since each racetrack apparently gets fees based on number of entries, I’m not sure what incentive they’d have to limit entrants only to horses who run in all three races.

    Second, it’s not like this is the first time a horse who has won the first two races has faced opponents who didn’t in the third. Some of those horses went on to win the Triple Crown anyway, so I’m not sure Coburn even has a fair point.

    For what its worth, I think part of what’ s going on here is related to the apparent rivalry between California horse breeders and East Coast breeders that has been mentioned during the pre-race shows for all three of these races. Then again, like most Americans I only really pay attention to this sport for five weeks every May and June so I’m no expert there.

    Coburn shouldn’t be too disappointed. Even if he never races again, California Chrome is going to be earning some handsome stud fees for many years to come.

  2. The Triple Crown is not actually a real thing. It’s not like, say, the NFL playoffs, where there’s a central league set up a series of tournament games to determine the best team in the league.

    It’s three completely independent races that the media started grouping together to create dramatic storylines.

    So it’s not clear why, say, the New York Racing Association should be expected to give up control over who runs in races at their race track just because sports journalists want to sell more papers.

  3. Gustopher says:

    I think a young man or woman, in their prime, in a wheelchair, might just win a game of basketball against a man in his 70s or so who has a striking resemblance to Wilfred Brimley.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    I don’t agree with Steve Coburn at all.

    To run a horse in the 3 Triple Crown races in 5-6 weeks puts the health of those those at risk, particularly the Belmont, which is the longest race, at a distance that until race day none of them have run. Also, some of the horses are a young 3 and some are older, the endurance of each horse is different depending upon age, bloodlines, and race experience.

    I’m pretty sure that if California Chrome had broken down in the Belmont and had to be put down, that many people would be questioning his decision to race in the Belmont. It is a hard decision for any owner or trainer – they have to weigh their investment in the horse and racing history with the health and well-being of the horse.

    Steve Coburn comes across as ungracious here, and that’s too bad, because he was certainly the beneficiary of “cinderella story” coverage fro the past 4 weeks. He might be regretting his remarks a little bit.

  5. steve says:

    I didn’t like that Coburn said what he said IMMEDIATELY after the race. That was a time for him to say “our horse didn’t have it today, congrats to the winner”. However, after reflecting on the underlying logic he’s using, I’m beginning to agree with his thoughts. Looking back, Secretariat ran in a five horse race at Belmont … all of which were prior entrants in KD and Preak. Not so today. There are indeed those horse owners that are picking and choosing and SPECIALIZING to win one race, much more so than ever before.

    As time has gone by, everything we are involved in from cell phones to baseball to medicine, etc. has all become more complicated and highly specialized. Take baseball. Pitchers used to go 9 innings a lot of the time 5 decades ago. Not now. There are two types of “middle relievers” and three types of “end game relievers” …… specialists! Seeing a starter “complete” a game has become a rarity.

    For horse racing, to improve the interest it receives, do like golf does with the FedEx Cup ($10M). Establish a $10M fund for a true Triple Crown winner, and limit the entrants in those races to those wanting to race in all three.

    It’s time for discussion about this situation and to look at ways at improving it. Every sport does change mildly with time!

  6. This would be like Ussain Bolt claiming that Kirani James didn’t really deserve to win the 400m Olympic gold at the 2012 London games. I mean James didn’t even try to qualify for the Olympic 100m and 200m sprints! How can Bolt hope to compete when there’s all these long distance specialists that just sit out the shorter races?

  7. @Stormy Dragon:

    Excellent analogy

  8. Joecephus says:

    while we’re making it easier to do something that is special (because only a select few have done it) why don’t we just call getting on base a “hit” as well so someone can break Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak. California Chrome didn’t win the Triple Crown, tough. Its a hard thing to win, that’s what makes it so special.

  9. Hal_10000 says:

    Coburn does have a point … but … every triple crown winner has faced the same challenges. While Secretariat was the overwhelming favorite at the 1973 Belmont, there was a minority of sports writers who felt that his all-out style would break down on the long race (it obviously didn’t). That’s why the triple crown is so unique and why the horses that win it are remembered. It’s not good enough to be fast. It’s good enough to have stamina. You have to have the best of both and bring your best three times.

    To continue Stormy’s analogy above, this is why Michael Johnson winning the 200- and 400-m races in Atlanta was so amazing. Almost no one has the ability to win both a sprint and a long race. And even fewer can do it in the same games.

  10. Carla Deminchuk says:

    If these young horses had to “earn points” to qualify for the Derby, we would have a Triple-Crown victory every year or so. Why? Because there would be eight horses in the Derby, six in the Preakness, and three in the Belmont. The rest would be broken down.

  11. ernieyeball says:

    Of the nine other entrants running the Preakness against California Chrome only two had raced in the Kentucky Derby. I did not hear anyone complain about the competition when that race was over.
    I suspect that Mr. Coburn knew the rules that governed the Belmont Stakes before he entered his horse. In fact he got some sort of rule change so California Chrome (and any other horse racing in NY) could use a nasal strip.
    How do you say sour grapes?
    Maybe Mr. Coburn should be thinking baseball instead of basketball. When the Dodgers go into their late summer slump they will need another bat.

  12. Grewgills says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    This analogy would be better if there were a ‘fastest man in the world’ trophy that went to anyone that won all three races.

  13. bk says:

    I’m still smarting over the fact that, even after posting on FB and elsewhere that I was touting a 2-8-11 exacta box, I decided to watch it at home instead of going to a sports book here in Las Vegas and betting. So long, that $348 payout. But, as a horse racing fan, I was saddened by his stupid comments. While it has been widely reported that he was drunk, he really ruined what had been a feel good story and put a halt to what had been a growing interest in the sport, which needed it. I liken the Triple Crown, in a way, to golf’s mythical Grand Slam. If a golfer who isn’t invited to the Masters ends up qualifying for – and winning – the U.S. Open, would the one who won the other three legs pitch the same type of fit? I would hope not. The guy showed an unbelievable lack of class, drunk or not.

  14. Matt T says:

    I’m with James. Entering a horse that’s a long distance specialist in the Belmont, against a horse that’s going for the Triple Crown, shows disrespect for the traditions of the sport. And at this point a long and storied tradition is one of the biggest/only things that racing has going for it.

  15. Kari Q says:

    If horse racing is going to have a Triple Crown, then owners should be obligated to run their horses in all three races, barring injury, and horses who don’t compete in a given race should be ineligible to compete in later Triple Crown races.

    No. Absolutely not. There are a lot of reasons why a horse might not make it into the Derby but none of those reasons should keep a horse from running in the Preakness or the Belmont.

    If you want to change the Triple Crown, the eligibility for the Belmont isn’t the place to look. The ‘problem’ – to the extent that there is one – is that we no longer ask horses to run as frequently as we used to. Three races in five weeks would once have been a fairly light racing schedule. Today, the Triple Crown is the only time that it will happen. Perhaps we should change the time between the races to reflect the realities of thoroughbred racing today.

    The distance of the Belmont is unique. Top races at a mile and half used to be fairly common. Today I don’t think that there is another Grade 1 race on dirt that is that long, other than the Breeder’s Cup marathon. A mile and a quarter is the standard distance, so there really are no “long distance” specialists, especially among 3 year olds at that time of the year.

    The uniqueness of the Belmont is part of what makes the Triple Crown what it is.

  16. DrDaveT says:


    every triple crown winner has faced the same challenges

    This is not true. Before the race, I was startled to read (in the NY Post handicapping guide) that no triple-crown winner has ever beaten more than 7 opponents in the Belmont. That is, if 8 or more horses are entered in the Belmont, no triple crown. There were 11 horses in yesterday’s race. I’d say it’s pretty clearly harder to beat 10 other horses than to beat 7 other horses, even if all of them are equally tired.

  17. Chromie says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Steve about horses that emerge only for the Belmont, and he had every right to speak his mind after the race. However, the kid in a wheelchair analogy was not called for. A better analogy would be teams that didn’t play all season showing up in the playoffs.

  18. Valerie says:

    His analogy was crap but his underlying argument had a point. If you go to the Olympics, you need to get through the qualifying rounds to get to the end race. At the final, you’re pretty tired. Having someone show up with fresh legs at the end is a ripoff to those who qualified properly.

  19. the Q says:

    Stormy Dragon’s analogy is ridiculous. A 400 meter race is 400 % longer than a 100 meter race and 200% as long as a 200.

    The difference between the Derby and the Belmont is 20% so hardly the same comparison.

    They only tweak they should make is take a longer break between Pimlico and Belmont in order to let a potential Crown winner a chance to recover and have a fairer chance against well rested competitors.

  20. Anonne says:

    I see his point; there is a specialness to running the horses in the entire series. If it is indeed a single event, that’s one thing, but it’s not isolated – there is something different to it than, say, the Olympics. Someone who runs the 100 is not expected to run the 400 as well, although the 200 is common. Very rarely do you see anyone go for 100, 200, 400 and they are never billed as a triple anything.