Robert Evans was gracious Saturday evening when a reporter relayed the sour-grapes comments from Steve Coburn, one of California Chrome’s owners.
Those remarks, in which Coburn said any horse entered in the Belmont Stakes should first have raced in the Kentucky Derby, were pointed at Tonalist, Evans’s Belmont-winning horse, who missed the Kentucky Derby because of an injury.
Immediately after Coburn’s colt failed in his bid for the Triple Crown, he called Tonalist’s route to the winner’s circle “a coward’s way out.”
Evans later responded, “I have no comment on that.”
As much as thoroughbred racing is criticized — for just about everything under the sun, including the pervasive use of drugs and the racing of injured horses — at times like these, the sport can display honor and compassion.
Tonalist, center, who caught and edged Commissioner at the wire, was running in just his fifth race.Belmont Stakes 2014: Tonalist Wins, Denying California Chrome the Triple CrownJUNE 7, 2014
Steve Coburn, an owner of California Chrome, on his way to the track at Belmont Park on Saturday.On Horse Racing: After California Chrome’s Belmont Defeat, Owner Stands on an Unseemly SoapboxJUNE 7, 2014
Tony Green, the lead floral designer at Belmont Park, preparing carnations for the winner’s blanket. “I’m a little bummed,Belmont’s Florist Was Rooting for California ChromeJUNE 7, 2014
California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza after the Belmont Stakes. The horse had become a darling of both the public and the media.TV Sports: California Chrome, the Object of NBC’s AffectionJUNE 7, 2014
Sentell Taylor Jr., known as Sonny, has worked at New York racetracks for 50 years and is now a placing judge at Belmont Park.Belmont Stakes Judges Must Engage in a Delicate DanceJUNE 7, 2014
Evans knew the depth of Coburn’s disappointment. He was 37 when his father’s colt Pleasant Colony narrowly missed out on a Triple Crown in 1981. Evans understood Coburn’s position: the exhilaration of winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and the heartbreak of losing in New York while expecting to make history.
The starting gate of the track at Belmont Park, where California Chrome failed in his bid to win the Triple Crown in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
”I’ve been where Steven Coburn’s been, and it’s not fun when you don’t win,” Evans told reporters.
Evans said he remembered everything about the 1981 race, from Pleasant Colony’s poor start to the too-little-too-late finish.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “It was very quiet in our box — my father, my brother and myself, we turned around and walked out. That was it.”
That sour moment made Saturday’s victory sweeter, although Evans acknowledged that the Belmont victory could not entirely atone for that lost bid for glory. The two people with whom he wanted to share the moment were not around to celebrate.
”My dad’s been dead for 16 years,” Evans said. “My brother’s only been dead for three years, and I wish he was here. He had a great horse in Quality Road, and I supported his campaign, and I’m sure he would have supported me with this horse. I miss him.”
A peculiar aspect of Saturday’s race was that both camps — that of the denied Triple Crown contender, California Chrome, and the lightly raced winner, Tonalist — had complaints about the racing industry.
Coburn does not like that qualified owners can pick and choose which Triple Crown races their horses run. Evans wants more space between the races.
“I think it would be better to spread it out a little bit,” he said. “It’s better for the horses, and it would be better to promote it, I think — a lot more time to create interest.”
Outside the interview room, Evans, who spent 20 years as a member of the New York Racing Association’s board of directors, criticized the industry, and NYRA in particular, for failing to optimally market the sport.
Evans wondered aloud why NYRA didn’t regularly advertise its product.
“Why don’t they?” he said. “I have asked that question as a member of the board and to the management here for a long time. I never get an answer.”
When told of Evans’s concerns, Jim Gluckson, a media relations consultant for NYRA, pointed out that the organization took out a full-page newspaper ad before the Kentucky Derby, encouraging fans to attend the Belmont Stakes. He also said that the $19.1 million in wagers at Belmont and at Aqueduct was a record.
“The marketing of this event did bring out more than 100,000 people,” Gluckson said. “It was a spectacular day of racing.”
Allen Gutterman, a marketing consultant for NYRA, said the industry had worked hard promoting racing.
“Just about every track in the nation does dollar beers, things like that,” he said. “They do concerts, food show festivals.”
He added, “We’re always trying to get fresh new people to the races.”
Gutterman acknowledged, however, that Evans’s call for longer intervals between Triple Crown races had merit.
“That is a legitimate argument,” he said. “Some people think that may be the reason why nobody has won for a long time. But it’s been like this since the beginning of horse racing. We had a gift here in California Chrome, and I think we ran with it.”
Saturday was my fourth time in attendance for a near miss, after heading to Belmont to watch War Emblem (in 2002), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008) and, two years ago, I’ll Have Another, who never made it to the post. In every case, the winning horse’s connections said a part of them would have liked to have seen history made.
”I would have liked for California Chrome to have the Triple Crown,” Evans said Saturday as he left to have his celebratory Champagne. “It would have been great for racing, but you can’t have a walkover. I’m sorry, but it’s horse racing.”