Minutes after California Chrome finished in fourth place at the Belmont Stakes, failing to win the Triple Crown, owner Steve Coburn ripped trainers and fellow owners who don't run all three of the sport's premier events. With a night to sleep on his statements and given a chance to recant, Coburn doubled down and called them cheaters.
It seems the second night of sleep was enough for a more proper reflection.
Coburn appeared on Good Morning America with his wife Carolyn on Monday, where he worked through tears and profusely apologized to anyone he offended.
"[I'm] very ashamed of myself," Coburn said, via Charles Curtis of NJ.com. "I need to apologize to a lot of people, including my wife Carolyn. First of all, I need to apologize to the winners, they ran a beautiful race...I did not mean to take anything away from them."
The quotes represented a swift change of heart from Coburn, whose outspoken nature has come to define the postmortem on the race. Approached by reporters after Tonalist edged Commissioner by a nose to take the Belmont, Coburn at first attempted to restrain himself before unleashing a televised tirade.
"It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since Day One," Coburn told NBC's Kenny Rice. "If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races. It's all or nothing. It's all or nothing because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for all the people who believe in him. This is a coward's way out, in my opinion."
Neither Tonalist nor Commissioner had run in the previous two Triple Crown races. Third-place finisher Medal Count participated in the Kentucky Derby but sat out the Preakness after finishing eighth in Louisville.
The format of the triad, featuring three races within little more than a month, has been under scrutiny amid concerns about the continued failures of Triple Crown contenders. California Chrome was the 13th horse to win the Derby and Preakness only to come up short at the Belmont since Affirmed last pulled it off in 1978.
Coburn was most offended by organizers allowing horses that hadn't qualified for the Derby to enter the later races. He suggested that the format be changed to where only the 20 horses that initially qualify at Churchill Downs be allowed to race in all three. In a trackside interview with ESPN, Coburn compared an exhausted California Chrome competing against Tonalist and Commissioner to him "at 6'2" playing basketball with a kid in a wheelchair."
Asked by Good Morning America on Sunday whether he regretted the comments—which offended some due to his seemingly making light of a child with handicaps—Coburn declined to back down.
"No, I'm just trying to compare the two," Coburn said. "Is it fair for me to play with this child in a wheelchair? Is it fair for them to hold their horses back?"
A day later, Coburn seemed to recognize the error of his comments. Speaking with GMA's Robin Roberts, Coburn had to choke back tears at multiple points and offered apologies to anyone offended, the owners of Tonalist and Commissioner and his own co-owner, Perry Martin.
Carolyn Coburn, who unsuccessfully tried to calm Steve down midway through his televised rant, indicated the apology was something her husband "needed" to do.
"I'm proud of him for coming up here and doing this," she said, per ESPN.com, via ABC News. "It was something we needed to do. Our story has given so much joy to so many people. I hope that this 30 seconds doesn't destroy all that."
While it's fair to question the sincerity of Coburn 24 hours after he stood by his statements, the emotion in his voice indicated he was speaking from the heart. His comparisons to handicapped children were regrettable, as was his criticism of fellow owners, but his overarching stance is something many agree with. Had he been able to better contextualize his words and not spoken within minutes of his Triple Crown dream being shattered, perhaps the entire conversation would have been different.
Either way, it's at the very least commendable for him to go on national television and offer what seemed like a sincere apology.
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