Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tonalist wins Belmont, owner acts the fool

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

While the focus was correctly on California Chrome as he attempted to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, it was Tonalist who ran an unbelievable mile-and-a-half race to just beat out a dead game Commissioner.  Tonalist shattered, once again, the notion that a horse today can win three races in five weeks at three different distances (the last a grueling mile-and-a-half) at three different tracks in an era where horses are bred and trained for speed, not stamina and, generally speaking, rarely race (i.e., six or seven times a year for today’s top horses).  California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth.

While one of California Chrome’s owners turned himself into a national fool in a matter of minutes (more on that later), the focus should be on the race, not the self-proclaimed “Dumb-ass” owner.


Well, for a number of reasons as to why Tonalist could win, please see this writer’s column from last Friday, picking Tonalist to win (see Kallas Remarks, 6/6/14).  With an excellent win over the Belmont track in the Peter Pan, tactical speed and top jockey Joel Rosario (who picked Tonalist over Ride on Curlin, who he rode to a second place Preakness finish) in the irons, Tonalist certainly was a horse who figured to have a good chance.

But he was monstrous in this long race.  Three, four and even five wide throughout the first turn, Tonalist never got near the rail to save ground the entire race.  Three and even four wide around that long, sweeping second turn (remember, Belmont is the only track in the country that is one lap for a mile-and-a-half), Tonalist had every reason to quit when he turned for home.

Indeed, for a second or two at the top of the stretch when California Chrome looked like he might join the fray, Tonalist seemed to hang just a touch; but then, he came on again to nail a dead game Commissioner (who was, surprisingly, on the lead for most of the race) at the wire.  It says here that, with a better trip, Tonalist would have been an easy winner.  But he got there first and that’s all that matters.

By the way, Tonalist took an incredible amount of “late” money at the Belmont.  While his morning line was 8-1, when he was 15-1 earlier on Belmont Day, some “experts” actually suggested that he couldn’t win because he wasn’t being bet.  If you understand the game, you know that’s an absurdity on Belmont Day (or Derby Day or Breeders Cup Day, etc.).  In fact, he held at 11-1 for about an hour before post.  But when the race was over, Tonalist had been hit from 11-1 to a low 9-1 ($20.40), an astounding drop given the handle on the Belmont.

Somebody (or a few people) bet something in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand to win on Tonalist just before post-time.  That’s the only way a horse could drop that much (yes, that’s a big drop in a race with this kind of handle) right before the bell rings.


Well, it says here that he had a pretty good trip and, according to Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, Victor Espinosa, Chrome’s rider in the Triple Crown, gave him a good trip.  While others (especially Randy Moss on the NBC show with Bailey) thought California Chrome was ridden poorly (‘he should have been on the lead” is essentially what Moss said), it’s a difficult decision that Bailey tried to explain to Moss and the audience.

I agree with Bailey’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” analysis – that is, if Chrome had gone to the lead early, he would have been used that much more and maybe challenged that much harder than long shot Commissioner, simply because he was going for the Triple Crown.  In that case, he would have been criticized for going to the lead too soon, according to Bailey.

Second-guessing a losing rider’s ride is as old as horse racing itself.

In addition, while there should be no excuses in horse racing, California Chrome did grab a quarter (classy trainer Art Sherman thought maybe at the start) and that could have compromised his chances.  Jockey Victor Espinosa, in separate interviews, essentially said that Chrome just didn’t have it at the Belmont like he did in the Derby and Preakness.


In what can only be described as a bizarre turn of events, one of California Chrome’s owners, Steven Coburn, lost his mind and took the low road after the defeat.  With Kenny Rice of NBC letting him rant on camera on national TV, Coburn, one of the sorest losers ever, went on an incredible rant, saying that racing in one leg of the Triple Crown “was a coward’s way out.”  He later told Yahoo Sports that the connections of Tonalist were  “cheaters” by only racing in one leg of the Triple Crown.

Sunday morning, the high-road trainer of California Chrome, Art Sherman, came to the barn and essentially told reporters that he thought Coburn would come in soon to apologize for what he had said the night before. 

To the contrary, Coburn, clueless in New York, came in and reiterated what he had said the night before.  Included in his rants, on two different occasions, Coburn said that having fresh horses racing against his horse, who had been through two grueling Triple Crown races, was like Coburn, at six foot two, “playing basketball against a kid in a wheelchair.”

As disgusting as that is, there are probably a few kids in wheelchairs who could beat Coburn at basketball (but he wouldn’t know that).  In addition, what kind of horsemen would knock his own horse (who won two Triple Crown races) by comparing him to a kid in a wheelchair (a huge negative in Coburn’s mind)?

It’s beyond stupid.

Right after the Belmontt, on national TV, it was clear to everyone (but him) that he was destroying all the good will he had built up in the prior five weeks. Coburn’s wife, on camera, tried to save him from himself by whispering something to him.  He yelled at her, on camera, “I don’t care.”  Very unfortunate.


Presumably this guy has some understanding of the horse business.  Tonalist, the Belmont winner, was on the Kentucky Derby trail and was going to race in the Wood Memorial, the New York prep for the Derby. 

But Tonalist got sick with a lung infection and was unable to make the Wood and his intelligent trainer, Christophe Clement, decided to back off with Tonalist, getting him healthy and getting a good prep race, the Peter Pan, at Belmont, under his belt.

Tonalist was awesome in the Peter Pan, winning by four lengths in the slop and making him a prime candidate for the Belmont.  If a horse, under the Coburn theory of you have to race in all three Triple Crown races, gets sick before a prep race, gets injured walking out of his stall a day or a week before the Derby, or gets a fever the day before or the day of the Derby, then he can’t race in any Triple Crown race?

As they say at the racetrack, these are animals, not machines, something that seems to have escaped Steven Coburn.

Again, beyond stupid.


As discussed in last Friday’s column, it’s already well past the time to change the timing of the Triple Crown races.  We just saw another example why as California Chrome became the twelfth horse (since Affirmed in 1978) to enter the gate having won the first two legs and not win (I’ll Have Another won both in 2012 but didn’t race in the Belmont due to injury).

While there are many on both sides of this argument (to change or not to change the timing), it no longer takes a “special” horse to win the Triple Crown.  It takes a super horse and maybe one that won’t be born given the way horses are bred, trained and raced in the modern era.  For a very interesting discussion on this issue, please listen to the 30-minute show that this writer did with WFAN’s Jody McDonald last Thursday (linked at Kallas Remarks, 6/6/14; Jody Mac also picked the winner of the Belmont, although neither of us had the exacta which, by the way, was a repeat of the Peter Pan exacta).

It says here that the analogy to pitchers pitching nine innings today (like they once did) is a good one.  Nobody expects that to happen today.  Indeed, a better part of the pitching analogy might be days of rest.  Cy Young, Walter Johnson and many back in the early 20th Century pitched on two days of rest.  Eventually, pitchers moved to three days of rest.  Today they pitch on four days of rest.  And we may be headed for a time (in the next 20 years or so, it says here), where pitchers will pitch on five days of rest.

Do you get the point?  Horses need more rest.  They get it throughout their respective careers – except for the Triple Crown.  It’s time to come into the 21st Century.  While we will never know, it says here that, if the prior Triple Crown winners were born into this generation and trained and raced like these horses are trained and raced, it would be very difficult for a number of them to win the Triple Crown.

It’s a totally different world.


Well, what about the tradition?  This writer is a traditionalist and a realist.  The reality is that the three races have been around since the 1860s (first Belmont – 1867) and the 1870s (first Preakness – 1873; first Derby – 1875).  Eleven times the Preakness was run before the Derby (which makes sense since the Preakness is shorter than the Derby).  In 1917 and 1922 the Derby and the Preakness were run on the same day. 

The Belmont was run at five different distances throughout its history.  When Sir Barton won the Belmont in 1919, he raced clockwise in the English tradition (all Belmonts until 1921 were raced “the wrong way.”).  By the way, Sir Barton’s Belmont was raced at a mile-and-three-eighths, not a mile-and-a-half.  Sir Barton won the Preakness four days after he won the Kentucky Derby (which he won as a maiden).

The Preakness has been raced at seven different distances, from one mile to one-and-a-half miles.  From 1894-1908, the Preakness was raced in Coney Island.  Horses used to race after the Preakness and before the Belmont.  In 1919, Sir Barton won the Withers Stakes in New York before he won the Belmont.  Omaha lost in the Withers in 1935 before winning the Belmont and completing his Triple Crown.  Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948) both raced and won between the Preakness and the Belmont.

The first 21 Kentucky Derby winners won at a mile-and-a-half, not a mile-and-a-quarter.

Things changed then.  They should change now. That should be clearer than ever.

P.S.  Nothing changes now that owner Steven Coburn came to his senses (or someone with a brain finally got to him) and apologized.  It’s the equivalent of having something in the headlines of a newspaper on page one in capital letters (saying what he said on national TV minutes after the Belmont ended) and then having his apology printed two days later on page 26 of the newspaper in small print (saying his apology two days later on a TV morning show).  With a reiteration of his stupidity in between when his trainer thought he was going to apologize (also on a morning show and at the track).

In any event, he was, as they say, “a day late [actually two days late] and a dollar short.”  Actually a million dollars or more short.  Maybe he should take some of those millions he’s made and donate it to kids in wheelchairs.  Still a national disgrace. 


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