I wasn't 100% sure when it happened, but it looked to me like California Chrome stumbled a bit coming out of the gate at the Belmont on Saturday. I couldn't tell if it was the shadows throwing me off, or he had a start reminiscent of War Emblem in the 2002 Belmont. Ironically enough, Victor Espinoza was aboard War Emblem that day, too.
Turns out, Chrome was stepped on by another horse as he left the gate, perhaps ending his Triple Crown bid before it really even got started.
For whatever reason you want to come up with, horse racing's Triple Crown lays unclaimed for a 36th straight year. Perhaps Chrome was just tired. Three long races in five weeks will do that to anyone. Perhaps the other horses in the race ganged up on Chrome to prevent history (I don't think that actually happened, but I'm sure the theory is out there). Perhaps he would have won if he hadn't been stepped on a mile and a half from the finish line.
I will say this: Cowardice played no part in Chrome's 4th place finish on Saturday.
After the race, NBC interviewed the more outspoken half of Chrome's ownership team, Steve Coburn. Coburn had some choice words for the owners of Tonalist (the forgotten winner of the race) and other horses. In short, Coburn thinks a century and a half of history and tradition should be forgotten in order to manufacture a Triple Crown.
Coburn doesn't think it's fair for a horse to skip the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, just to take a shot in the Belmont. Only three horses this year ran in all three TC races: Ride On Curlin, General a Rod, and California Chrome. Most sensible horse owners would never subject their horses to the grueling Triple Crown trail. It's an exhausting stretch of three races, all longer than any of those horses have ever run before, and the last of the three is the longest.
That five week stretch is something these still-immature horses have never done before, and never will do again. To me, there's no sense in running your horse in the Preakness if you don't win the Kentucky Derby. I get that the race is worth a lot of money, but for a horse with no shot at the Crown after losing the Derby, there's no upside. Elite horses almost never come back in two weeks. They're better off resting for four weeks and trying the Belmont...or pointing towards other races entirely.
I know horse racing needs a shot in the arm. Multiple people have asked me if a California Chrome victory on Saturday would have "saved" horse racing.
The short answer: No. Not a chance. And here's why.
The American sports landscape used to be baseball, boxing, and horse racing...not necessarily in that order. Two of those three have fallen way off of America's radar, and the other has fallen far behind the NFL in popularity. With the proliferation of the internet and television, people have stopped going to the track like they used to. For most casual sports fans, going to the track means a day of sun, beer, and picking the cutest name out of the program. They couldn't tell you the difference between a furlong and a quarter pole.
If California Chrome had won the Triple Crown, people would be excited for a few days. Then we'd go back to LeBron's cramps, how much the Cubs suck, and the countdown until Bourbannais. When Chrome ran again in the Haskell or the Travers, and eventually the Breeder's Cup there would be a little buzz. Then Chrome retires. He goes away to breed, and the casual fan never hears of him again.
If horse racing wanted to create a little excitement surrounding the Triple Crown, they would make it an official series. They would offer three million dollars to the owner of the horse that has the best average finish in all three races. They would require that you run in all three races, and they would offer five million dollars to a horse who won all three. They would put a month between each race, so that the horses could get the proper amount of rest. Steve Coburn would be happy, there would be sustained buzz around the sport, and perhaps we'd finally get ourselves a Triple Crown.
Here's why that won't happen anytime soon. There's no national governing body like the NCAA (and maybe that's a good thing) that oversees racing across the country. Each state has their own rules and does things their own way. Tracks make their own stakes schedules, and outside of the Triple Crown races, those races can change which weekend they are on. In my opinion, too much would have to happen.
Don't get me wrong. I'd love to see a Triple Crown. I'd love to see the sport return to prominence. It's a great sport and there's so much more to it than meets the eye. I just don't want to see one manufactured. I want to see the next Secretariat, the next Seattle Slew, the next Affirmed.
History is against it, but we love the thrill of the chase.