Most people were so revolted by California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn’s comments last Saturday after his horse failed to win the Triple Crown they launched a blistering attack on Twitter — the 21st century version of tar-and-feathering — that eventually led to his tearful apology a couple days later on national television.
I stood up and cheered when I watched Coburn launch his televised rant against rival horse owners at the end of the Belmont Stakes on Long Island, calling them “cowards” because unlike California Chrome most of them had skipped the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness, and therefore were well-rested for the 1.5-mile race.
“Right on, brother!” I cried.
You see, I make similar excuses any time I finish far back in the field.
Sure, I’ve crossed the finish line in first place in my division in various kayak and running competitions over the years, but whenever I fail to win, place or show I’m ready with an explanation.
“Everybody else cheated!”
Take the Boston Marathon in April.
Just because I hadn’t run a qualifying marathon in a fast time the mean-spirited killjoys of the Boston Athletic Association gave me a ridiculously high bib number that forced me to start the 26.2-mile
running race in a corral of casual joggers more than an hour after the Kenyans and other elite runners took off. I hadn’t even reached Heartbreak Hill, for God’s sake, when Meb Keflezighi sprinted across the finish line on Boylston Street!
I experienced a similar situation a few years ago in New York, during the Mayor’s Cup New York City Kayak Championship, a 28-mile race around Manhattan that attracted some of the world’s best paddlers.
Strolling around the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Hudson River an hour or so before the race started to scope out the competition, I spotted Greg Barton, winner of four Olympic medals, including two golds, stretching his muscles next to a sleek surfski.
“Nice boat,” I said. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” he said. “You too.”
Had I known that race organizers would have allowed Barton and his big-shot cronies to take off well ahead of the other paddlers — including my buddy Ian Frenkel and me in our tandem — I wouldn’t have been so polite.
“Hey, Barton!” I would have sneered. “How about starting back with the rest of the paddlers, you thing you’re so tough!”
Even though Ian and I took first place in the two-man sea kayak division, Barton and his pals had already circled Manhattan by the time we worked our way up the Hudson, across the Harlem, down the East, around the Battery and back up the Hudson. What’s more, we had to wait nearly an hour during the awards ceremony for them to claim our prize.
While Barton and other elite paddlers walked away with thousands of dollars in swag and appearance fees, Ian and I took home a couple of crappy T-shirts and a faux-gold medal.
If somebody aimed a camera at me and thrust a microphone in my face then I would have spewed a string of epithets that would have made Coburn’s tirade seem like a hissy fit.
In that race Ian and I were divisional winners in the tandem sea kayak class; I savored my most significant outright victory years earlier at a so-called Hash race, the brainchild of a British club, the Hash House Harriers, whose members identify themselves as drinkers with a running problem. Officials lay out the course in secret, marking the route with ribbons and signs marked on the ground in flour. Everybody starts at the same time, and a runner in the lead is supposed to shout, “On! On!” if he finds himself on the right trail, or “Go back!” if it turns out to be a dead end.
Anyway, I was running a hundred yards or so behind the lead pack with less than a quarter-mile to the finish, and watched them dart left at an intersection.
Ordinarily I would have followed, but realized I had only once chance to win, and turned right. I was correct: Directly ahead, the finish line beckoned!
“On! On!” I shouted. Well ... maybe I whispered.
The others quickly realized what had happened and reversed course, but they were too late.
I sprinted across the line and claimed my prize, a can of corned beef hash.
“You cheated!” one of the trailing races whined.
“Next time, run faster” I sneered.
Sortsmanship-smortsmanship. Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice had it backwards: It doesn’t matter how you play the game, as long as you win. And if you don’t win, at least you can be a sore loser.