ELMONT, N.Y. -- What a smashing outcome to the 146th Belmont Stakes. It delivered. Poised to provide a good horse race, it exceeded that promise by furlongs.
It gave us a clear glimpse at a great phenomenon of human nature: some male human cowboy-hat mournfulness at the damned outcome of a damned sporting event. We all know this occurs in living rooms (with or without hats). We all know it happens in bars. We all know it occurs most poignantly in the Southeastern Conference football season, because we've seen a lot of those post-loss, male-human, fan videos.
We just do not get to see it in all its helpless, raw glory on live national TV.
A Mr. Steve Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., supplied the spectacle in all its helpless, raw glory. By the time this co-owner of perfunctorily beaten favorite California Chrome finished his conversation with the excellent Kenny Rice on NBC, Coburn had used the word "coward" thrice. He used "never" huffily. He twice used those age-old words that so often dance together: "not fair." Not fair! His words roiled with a prediction of ceaseless doom, involving the Triple Crown. You almost expected him to go home and post vitriolic comments beneath news stories.
This was so superior to that.
If you see an owner boldly display this unvarnished post-loss emotion for the consumption of a coast-to-coast TV audience, you've seen something. If you see him do so while his wife tugs on him gently hoping to get him to stop, you've seen something over which a thousand college theses could commence. You've had yourself a good day at the races.
Jeez, these males are so strange, she must have thought.
I think Mr. Coburn's suggestion for tweaking the Triple Crown is cockamamie, but I give him credit for giving us a sincere dish of defeat grief.
For the prelude, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome finished fourth, but we all knew that would happen. Some of us were born at night, but we weren't born Friday night. We've been around. We know that while they have a stadium in Manchester, England, nicknamed the "Theatre of Dreams," they have a horse track here on the Queens-Long Island line they ought to call the "Theatre of Dreams That End As You Wake Up To Reality Just When Something Good Is About To Happen." We know that when some three-year-old wins the Derby and Preakness, the Belmont's job is to take that anticipation and raise it up to the New York skyline and let it float over the Empire State Building and then let that needle on the top puncture it. We know the Belmont program includes a roar at the top of the stretch, followed by the muffled human sounds that come right as a roar deflates. It's probably written into the music. You wonder how the notes must look. Now the 12 horses who won the Derby and Preakness in the last 36 springs have finished second four times, third four times, fourth twice, eased up once and scratched once. This one added a tie for fourth, for variety.
Further, and crucially, as winning trainer Christophe Clement said, "I always believe in pedigree. At some stage, pedigree kicks in." The victorious Tonalist "is out of a mare by Pleasant Colony (the 1981 Derby and Preakness winner) and Pleasant Colony had tremendous stamina." No such stamina shouts from California Chrome's $8,000-mare, $2,500 stallion bloodline, which enchanted us for a while as well it should.
The Belmont serves to quash enchantment.
Still, Mr. Coburn had come to New York with hope for the hopeless. He had never done this before. He had never entered the Belmont Park track to a crowd that turned around pre-race and cheered him and shouted, "Let's go, Chrome," as he doffed his hat, the spectacle loud enough for goose bumps. He did that Saturday in the sunshine. What an opportunity, even if his horse had zero chance, according to 36-year Belmont lore.
So when the inevitable finished happening, he clearly had hoped it wasn't inevitable, so he began and said a few lines and merged into full anguish: "I'll never see, and I'm 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime because of the way they do this." He meant the way Tonalist and Commissioner, the top two finishers, could race the Belmont without having raced the Derby and/or the Preakness.
Continuing: "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" -- and Tonalist decisively didn't -- "you can't run 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 the people who believe in them. This is a coward's way out, in my opinion. This is a coward's way out."
Two sentences later: "If you've got a horse, run him in all three. Those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races."
And: "This is a coward's way out."
Of course, the Triple Crown would be cheapened if the horse who won it hadn't beaten back all the available 3-year-olds. The Belmont could go almost uncontested some years if the attrition from the Derby and Preakness had only 20 horses to whittle. That's OK: We all know the helplessness of agonizing defeats can lead humans, especially male humans, to some outlandish, dire suggestions. Perhaps with understanding, both Clement and Tonalist owner Robert Evans issued "no comment" answers when asked about Coburn, even as Evans did field a question about whether people confuse him with Churchill Downs CEO Robert Evans, winding through an answer before concluding, "I don't like the association, we'll just leave it at that."
A Triple Crown winner might have helped horse racing, but since that hasn't worked since 1978, the sport might as well try good doses of post-race candor.