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TrackNotes: Loose Ends From The Triple Crown Trail

Every bacchanal demands a cleanup.

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New drinking game: Take a pop every time you hear "California Chrome ('Chrome for us hipsters) is America's Horse."

You do have to admire him after victory in the 139th Preakness Stakes propels him on the odyssey of seeking Thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown.

'Chrome, with Victor Espinoza aboard, ran a nearly identical race to his victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks before. I say nearly because the son of Lucky Pulpit required a bursting turn of foot on Pimlico's far backstretch to keep himself out of trouble and traffic as he bided his time before the big money run down the stretch. Another new twist was his relative serenity in the starting gate, usually a hellhole for him. He still didn't like it, but at least he wasn't trying to tear it apart weld by weld as in the past.

Once again, he tucked in behind the early leaders, Pablo Del Monte and the filly Ria Antonia - two of the more improbable pacesetters - showing the world he never needs to be the number one seed. Nearing the end of the backstretch, Espinoza asked and California Chrome obliged to a slight downshift and pedal punch that kept him from getting bottled up and requiring the scenic route to get free.

Once he reached the home stretch, 'Chrome accelerated and took an insurmountable lead. Ride On Curlin did his best to make a race of it and might have run down many other horses, but California Chrome had all the space he needed. Social Inclusion, green and rank, was a nervous wreck before the race, obviously spooked by the crowd and lathered in sweat. But his third-place finish has to bode well for him this summer.

'Chrome has arrived at Belmont Park and reportedly had a very nice gallop mid-week. But there will be plenty of time to talk about the Test of Champions soon, down the line.

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I felt like Otis Campbell all day. Just as Otis incredulously asked anyone and everyone why Barney threw the tomato at him, I kept asking why NBCSports Network and NBC itself did not show any of the other races on the Preakness undercard.

I understand that I am going to see the same features on the broadcast network after the switch from premium cable, but not only was the beating of the same dead . . . story line of California Chrome's rag-to-riches saga tedious and grating, NBC didn't even break it up by showing the other races. Almost simultaneously with the starting gate bell for one of the stakes races, NBC went to a commercial break!

Upon reentry, they immediately went back to Chrome's humble beginnings. AGAIN! The three Triple Crown days are each filled with good races that can give all fans, casual or not, a good feel for the sport. So help me God, if they do the same thing on Belmont Stakes Day. Belmont has loaded the card with five Grade I races besides the Belmont, including the Metropolitan Handicap, the Ogden Phipps and the Acorn. Sure, I can watch them all on the Bozoputer, but if NBC doesn't show them, why do they even send the taking heads?

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Amid all the buzz and revelry on the trophy stand after the race, Steve Coburn, part owner of California Chrome, became my new biggest hero. As Raven Mane Robby Costas spooned up the softballs, Coburn let out with a blast at Churchill Downs personnel for the lack of hospitality they apparently showed the Dumb Ass Partners stable group (that's really their name) during Derby week.

It was pointed, jaw dropping, and truly impressive: "All I can say is my partner (in California Chrome), Perry Martin, is a very private person," Coburn said. "And Perry, I hope you're listening to this because we love you and really wanted you to be here. But I can understand why he's not here. The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn't very good, and Perry decided he and his family were going to watch the race somewhere else in the world."

Apparently, the keepers of the Kentucky Derby showed little inclination in helping Martin's elderly mother get around before, during and after the Derby was run.

Coburn, much like his horse did at the finish line in front of him, drove the point home after the Preakness.

"I'm serious about this. I'm serious as a heart attack. We got to Churchill and not only did I complain, but there were other trainers, owners, and even jockeys complaining about the way they were treated. I've said this once, I've said it 50 times - Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality. Because these people right here, they've treated us like royalty, and I can't say thank you enough."

Even Louisville columnist Mark Coomes had some choice words for his hometown corporate behemoth:

Owners and trainers have quietly stewed for years about inflated prices, sparse tickets and austere amenities provided to the people whose animals stage the sport's greatest show - and the signature event of Churchill Downs Inc.

It's a long story, but Coomes nutshells it. Always remember, Churchill Downs Inc. owns Arlington Park. We are not immune. We too suffer.

(Editor's Note: For more on this particular sore spot, listen to Tom on The Beachwood Radio Hour #5: Lost Faith In A Ruined Sport. His segment begins at 17:46.)

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The annual hand wringing over the supreme demands put upon a horse and his connections to win the Triple Crown rose up again this year around Preakness time, this time raised by officials of Pimlico itself.

Pimlico is complaining about how trainers and owners don't like to run their horses again two weeks after Kentucky Derby weekend and skip the festivities at Preakness time. Make it easier, they say, by putting a month between races. That is today's reality, but they need to be a little more creative.

Just because today's horsemen are more interested in stud fees and horse sales doesn't mean they have to mess with a sport that has existed since horses became horses. The Triple Crown tradition has absolutely no equal in American sports.

As national handicapper Mike Watchmaker of the Daily Racing Form observed, as Pimlico's undercard on both Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness days are constructed, race conditions are near carbon copies of Churchill's Oaks and Derby card, making it somewhat desirable in this day and age of coddled horses to skip Preakness weekend and move on to Belmont day or beyond.

Watchmaker suggested throwing in more turf races and/or sprints on Preakness weekend. The Triple Crown contenders will always run the Preakness.

Baseball and its legions of lazy, indifferent players has ruined that game. NBA basketball doesn't get good until the finals, if then. NFL football is nothing more than a made-for-TV video game with on-the-fly rules legislation.

A horse has to be special to win the Triple Crown, to truly become an America's Horse. We still talk about them all, remember them all, in reverent tones. We still reminisce about the what ifs of the ones who fall one race short.

I know the Chicago Bears won the 1985 Super Bowl in 1986. After that, don't ask me who won what when. Do we remember any of the scores of other Super winners?

We do remember Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. It's easy to remember them, because they're forever special.

We must keep it so.


Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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