A horse of the same color

2014 June 8
by Don Hammack

Steve Coburn set off a bunch of panty-wadding when his bunched up following California Chrome’s disappointing Belmont Stakes fourth-place finish Sunday. He launched into a tirade shortly after the race, saying horses that skipped one or both of the previous races didn’t deserve to run in the third just to try to take down a potential Triple Crown winner.

This is the coward’s way out,” said Coburn.

First off, I wish more players, coaches and others around sports would be as candid, and I wish folks would allow them to be as candid. It’s a straight line from bashing Coburn for venting to Bill Belichick’s monosyllabic press conferences. To paraphrase “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” a classic in bad sequel history, “Let them say! Let them say!”

Now, to the crux of the post. I’m not a horse racing historian, but his plea seemed to require us to look back at the history of the Triple Crown and see if something had changed.

I started with Secretariat, a horse I realized might have helped me pick my favorite color. I loved the blue-and-white checkered silks of Claiborne Farm, and Big Red was one of the first sporting heroes I remember seeing do things live. In 1973, he destroyed every horse in his way, winning the Triple Crown and setting records in each race that still stand today. Four other horses bothered to show up for the Belmont. Only Sham had run the other two races, and had placed each time. Sham tried to push Secretariat, but he got crushed and finished last. My Gallant and Twice a Prince ran at Louisville, but skipped the Preakness; Pvt. Smiles only ran the Belmont.

The first Triple Crown in 25 years seemed to set off a spasm of them, with Seattle Slew and Affirmed winning in 1977 and 1978. Eight horses ran in the 1977 Belmont. Half the field (Run Dusty Run, Sanhedrin and Sir Sir) ran all three races. Iron Constitution ran after having only run the Preakness, with three others (Make Amends, Mr. Red Wing and Spirit Level) running only the final race.

Affirmed and Alydar ran three spectacular races in 1978, with Affirmed winning the Triple Crown by a 1-1/2 lengths, a neck and a nose over the hard-luck Alydar, the only horse ever to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. There were only three other horses in the Belmont, and they provided every possible combination of participation. Darby Creek Road ran the Derby and the Belmont, Noon Time Spender ran the Preakness and the Derby, and Judge Advocate ran only the Belmont.

See a trend here? It holds up. In all but one of the remaining Triple Crown years (War Admiral in 1937), at least half the remaining horses in the field ran only the Belmont. (Source: The Triple Crown Project)

How does California Chrome compare? He actually faced a field where more than half ran at least one other race.

Steve Coburn’s heart was surely broken by coming so close to the Triple Crown, but this analysis makes it appear he wasn’t cheated compared to the horses that closed the deal in the Belmont. California Chrome just wasn’t good enough to be among the greats.

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