Lessons from Losing

I don’t like to lose. Never have. But as much as I dislike losing, I have learned that it is a great teacher and can help you win next time—if you are open and willing to

California Chrome and Jockey Victor Espinoza Photo Credit: Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated

learn the lesson it offers.

As I watched the Belmont Stakes on Saturday I found myself rooting for California Chrome to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Steve and Carolyn Coburn (Credit: John Roca)

California Chrome came in a disappointing tie for fourth, in a race that wasn’t particularly fast. It was just plain average in fact. Secretariat would have won this race by 4 seconds. So California Chrome joined the less prestigious list of 23 of 34 horses that won the first two legs and failed to win the third. It is very hard to win the Triple Crown. That is what makes it such a phenomenal achievement—only 11 horses have ever done it.

 

Enter California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, who was interviewed immediately after the race. His rant included accusing his competition of “cheating” and “taking the coward’s way out.” As rants go, his made several seemingly excellent points, the best of which was that Chrome had to face fresh horses who did not have to endure the punishment of running the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in relatively close proximity to the Belmont. In Coburn’s view, these horses were unfairly fresh. The obvious problem with this argument is that the other Triple Crown winners faced the same challenge. That is, in fact, part of the Triple Crown challenge.

The Bar Is Uniquely High For The Triple Crown

People seem to forget that the Triple Crown consists of three entirely individual races. Each race can make its own rules as to which horses are eligible. So there are no Triple Crown rules per se. If one has a phenomenal horse, it will have a chance to win the Triple Crown; if it is merely a great horse, it likely will not win it. So what is the problem? Shouldn’t the Triple Crown winners be horses for the ages?

Also, let’s not lose sight of the fact that California Chrome tied for fourth. It wasn’t second, barely beaten by the nose of a fresh horse. The problem so many horses have had with winning the Belmont is that it runs a mile and a half. Even California Chrome’s jockey has had trouble with the distance: his prior record at Belmont was two wins in 67 races. That extra half-mile changes the dynamics of the race considerably. If the Triple Crown were being structured as an actual event, it would never be structured the way it is. It takes a rare horse indeed to win the Triple Crown with the odds so heavily stacked against it, and that, I think, is the point Mr. Coburn completely missed—or at least has refused to accept.

It was not the rules, nor the owners, nor the other horses’ fault that California Chrome did not win the Triple Crown. There was no cheating or cowardly behavior. It was because the challenge is so historically great only a few very rare horses can do it. The fact that it is intrinsically unlikely is part of the lore of horse racing.

If Mr. Coburn’s recommendation that no horse be allowed to enter any of the Triple Crown events unless they are in all them were enacted, every subsequent winner would need an asterisk to explain their achievement was far less significant than the real winners of the past.

The Communications Lesson Mr. Coburn Can Teach Us

One lesson that can be learned from this incident is that bitterness, anger and name calling rarely serve a productive communications purpose. That approach more often just simply backfires. The charming story of California Chrome’s unlikely success is now drowned in the story of a sore loser. As a result of Mr. Coburn’s bitter reaction and decision to take the low road, he missed an opportunity to add to the sport instead of his misguided and significant choice to subtract.

A more meaningful message from Mr. Coburn would have been to engage the history, context and challenge of the Triple Crown by congratulating the winner and praising his own horse (who was actually injured coming out of the gate) for a fantastic effort and a spectacular season. After a heart-breaking loss, that would have been very difficult. But what Mr. Coburn did was essentially take the easy way out. He might feel better for having the chance to self-righteously rant and rave, but it served no productive purpose for him, the horse or the sport and merely positioned him as a sore loser and a decidedly ungracious sportsman.

The lesson Mr. Coburn offers us is there is a lot less traffic on the high road, because the low road is so crowded.

Patrick Strother

Patrick founded Strother Communications Group (SCG) in 1992. His background is unique in that he has led both a public relations firm (Rowland Worldwide – Midwest) and an ad agency (Cevette and Company.) SCG was founded on the premise that […] Read Bio »