Enjoy ride on California Chrome, but leave Triple Crown alone

With California Chrome struggling with a furlong to go in the Belmont Stakes, I now know how Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts must have felt rooting for their horse Starry Hope in “The Pope of Greenwich Village.”

Starry Hope didn’t win, and neither did California Chrome. The sun rose the next morning and we all turned the page.

California Chrome gave us a five-week joy ride that energized horse racing. A Kentucky Derby win started the ball rolling. A Preakness win set up the anticipation of a Triple Crown horse. And the Belmont Stakes provided the climactic ending, a 13th near-miss since 1978.

The long shadow of Affirmed, the last Triple Crown champion 36 years ago, sits there like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL’s last undefeated champion. Nobody said running the table is easy, so the wait goes on.

For a sport that is supposedly dying, the Belmont Stakes, with 20.6 million viewers at its peak on NBC, was the most-watched television show last week. NBC called it a “double rarity.” That’s because it happened on a Saturday, normally a poor ratings day, and was outside of prime time.

Also, the 20.6 million viewers did not include the untold numbers who watched in race books, racetracks, sports bars, OTBs, et al. Those are not considered metered homes by the Nielsen Co.

The co-star these five weeks, along with his horse California Chrome, was co-owner Steve Coburn. Quotable, unfiltered, raw. He was all of that.

The “oh my gosh” moment of the Triple Crown was when Coburn went on a tirade ranting post-Belmont on NBC. His wife kept poking him from behind trying to get him to shut up. Coburn then turns around and yells at her.

Now most married men will know that’s a no-no to do to your wife. Coburn apologized to everyone two days later on “Good Morning America.”

Coburn had a right to talk about changes to the Triple Crown format. That discussion has been going on for years. However, his timing and presentation couldn’t have been worse. He came across as a sore loser.

Spacing the Derby, Preakness and Belmont farther apart could actually make winning the Triple Crown harder. Rested, even more talented challengers would make for full fields of 14 in both the Preakness and Belmont.

The way it is now, the Preakness has been a breather for the Derby winner. Favorites win at close to 50 percent in the Preakness. Making the Preakness and Belmont fields bigger and stronger will only make it harder for any horse to win all three races.

The impact of having a Triple Crown horse in the future is clearly overstated anyhow. I do expect to see in my lifetime the 12th Triple Crown champion. California Chrome lost by less than two lengths. Smarty Jones lost by a length. Real Quiet lost by a nose. It will happen.

Then, there are way too many issues on horse racing’s business side that are much more important to solve. A few include lowering the takeout, which is the tax on bettors. Lowering the costs to owners, which make owning a racehorse too expensive. Marketing better to a younger demographic.

My vote is for leaving the Triple Crown as is. A worthy champion will eventually come along, sooner, rather than later.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.