If you want to become famous overnight, Steve Coburn can tell you how. The co-owner of California Chrome had reaped a lot of attention after the thoroughbred won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, putting him in position to capture a rare Triple Crown. But it was a bitter tirade after the Belmont Stakes that made the Wilford Brimley look-alike into a household word.
Coburn didn’t say the gracious things owners usually say after a disappointing loss. Instead, he denounced rules that allowed winner Tonalist to skip the first two races and compete in the Belmont Stakes against the favorite, who showed signs of fatigue in finishing fourth.
That approach, Coburn fumed, was "the coward’s way out." Coburn argued that only those steeds racing in the Derby and Preakness should be allowed to enter the final race. He also snapped at his wife when she tried to calm him down. On Sunday, he compounded the damage. "They hold out two and then come back and run one," he fumed. "That would be like me at 6-2 playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair."
Some viewers took this as proof that Coburn and his co-owners weren’t kidding when they named their operation DAP Racing — which they said stands for "Dumb-Ass Partners." Finding himself enveloped in controversy, Coburn went on TV Monday to apologize and congratulate the winning team. But we’re betting a lot of people forgot why they were rooting for California Chrome in the first place.
Of course it would be easier to achieve the Triple Crown if Coburn had his way, but it would also diminish the achievement. To win that distinction, a horse has to be ready to take on all comers in each race, even those that are rested and gunning to play the spoiler. A thoroughbred joins immortals like Secretariat and Affirmed by proving he is not merely the best three-year-old among the group that ran the Derby, but the best, period.
Grousing about the unrestricted approach is like complaining when your baseball team loses to a fresh pitcher called up from the minors last week rather than facing a weary one who was on the roster all season. Coburn knew the rules when he entered his stallion.
Forgotten in the brouhaha was that he had actually demanded and gotten a change in the Belmont Stakes policy banning nose strips, which California Chrome wore in the previous races. So Coburn couldn’t exactly claim to have been mistreated.
Some fans thought the owner had a good point in contending that the rule on entrants in the Belmont was unfair. But if you want someone to take your claim seriously, it’s best to make it in a context in which it doesn’t sound brazenly self-serving. Then people are more likely to listen and less likely to jeer.
As Coburn could probably attest, anyone in any sport can end up a loser. A smart competitor, however, can choose not to be a sore loser.