BALTIMORE — As big a winner as California Chrome was here Saturday in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, the host site of the first leg took a big defeat.
That would be Churchill Downs, the sacred land upon which the Kentucky Derby is held.
In the midst of the joy of victory by his horse, co-owner Steve Coburn used the occasion to shred Churchill Downs, hinting at arrogance, indifference and lack of caring for visiting horsemen.
Asked why his co-owner, Perry Martin, didn’t attend the Preakness, Coburn said, “The hospitality we received at Churchill Downs wasn’t very good, and Perry Martin, he decided that he and his family were going to watch the race some place within the world — I can’t tell you where it is at because I don’t even know where in hell it’s at — and then go have a good supper.”
The floodgates had opened and Churchill Downs — the company that, among other things, sold Hollywood Park down the drain to a land-development company — was in the path.
“I’m as serious as a heart attack,” Coburn said. “We got to Churchill and not only did I complain, but there were other trainers and jockeys and owner who were 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. These people here, they’ve treated us like royalty and I can’t thank you enough.”
And then, the ultimate dagger.
“I honestly believe that [Derby day] was a bad, bad day at Churchill,” Coburn said. “Even though we won, it was a bad day for my partner and his family.”
This isn’t the first hint of a problem at the Twin Spires race place. There is Internet discussion about increased takeout by the track that limits gamblers’ profits. Loosely organized boycotts by gamblers seem to be finding traction.
During the Derby week this year, former jockey Ron Turcotte, who is paralyzed, was critical of Churchill’s alleged indifference to his needs in merely trying to attend this year’s race. Turcotte, of course, started his Triple Crown run aboard Secretariat at Churchill in 1973.
John Asher, vice-president of racing communications for Churchill Downs, responded to Coburn in part late Saturday night.
“We’re disappointed that the overall experience for the owners of California Chrome,” Asher said, “apparently did not measure up to the stellar performance of their horse in the Kentucky Derby.”
Asher said Churchill was open to discussion.
Coburn also had an interesting suggestion relative to the Triple Crown series, which he said suffers from an unfair playing field. He said that many owners and trainers hold their horses out of the Derby and become fresh challengers as a horse tries to complete the Triple Crown.
“I believe they need to change the sport,” Coburn said, “to where those 20 horse who start the Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in the three races.”
No pilot error
Jockey Victor Espinoza, the quiet type, is being dragged out of his shell more and more by the Triple Crown run. And when asked what has been the No. 1 ingredient for California Chrome’s five-race winning streak, Espinoza, who has been in the saddle in all those races, didn’t miss a beat.
“I think the way I ride him,” he said.
One for all
Coburn is trying to turn California Chrome’s effort into a national symbol, much like Seabiscuit during the war years heading for the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.
“This is a nice horse,” Coburn said. “He loves people. He loves what he does and that’s why he is America’s horse…This horse has given everybody out there the incentive to say, ‘You know what? We can do it. The little guy can do it.’”