We love fairy tale stories. They're simple. Straightforward. And they make us feel good.
Like pizza. And beer.
But they're rarely a reflection of real life.
Tragedy, on the other hand, portrays a protagonist's success -- often coupled with excessive pride or hubris -- followed by The Fall.
Like it or not, tragedy raises a much more accurate mirror to our collective human face than does any child's fairy tale.
The Cinderella story that was California Chrome ended Saturday at this impressive racetrack in Elmont, N.Y. when the charismatic, chestnut-colored colt finished in a dead-heat for fourth place. Tonalist, owned by Robert S. Evans, trained by Christophe Clement and ridden by jockey Joel Rosario, was the clear victor.
The conclusion of this passion play didn't quite rise to the level of Shakespeare. But it also didn't end well for the high-flying protagonists, Chrome's Stetson-wearing co-owner Steve Coburn and his team of trainers, groom, jockey, exercise rider -- and the huge numbers of friends and fans who had attached their hopes to Coburn's dream to capture the elusive Triple Crown.
It would have been a Cinderella story for the ages, had the fairy tale come true. But it didn't. And because we're not children, we can chalk it up to the vagaries of fate, the mathematical uncertainties that are inherent in horse racing or even systemic unfairness that may indeed be built into the traditions of this troubled sport.
But what we don't do -- in the midst of our defeat -- is neglect to give credit to the winner in his moment of glory. What we don't do is deflect blame and point fingers.
Unfortunately, that's exactly what Coburn did.
"This is a coward's way out, in my opinion," the 61-year-old former Bakersfield resident said into the cameras just minutes after the heartbreaking loss.
And as is his habit, he repeated those words for emphasis.
"This is the coward's way out."
Exactly 24 hours earlier, at his hotel in Garden City, he told me and another journalist precisely what kind of performance he expected from his beautiful, young colt.
"A winning performance," he said. "A winning performance."
Mr. Coburn, it's not good form to guarantee victory one day, and then, when it doesn't materialize, blame it on others.
"Our horse had a target on his back," he said. And then he used the C-word again. For emphasis.
It was not Coburn's best moment. Who was it who said one's character is exposed not in victory, but in the agony of failure and loss?
I'm not exactly sure, but I think it was Mom. And Dad. Teacher. And Priest.
That's not to say Coburn doesn't have a point. He makes arguments that other well-respected experts are making.
His horse, the still-great California Chrome, had to run more races this year than some others in the field Saturday at Belmont Racetrack. Including the winner, Tonalist.
Let's look at the numbers:
Saturday's race represented the sixth start for Chrome this year. There's no doubt, he's been a workhorse in 2014. And that is probably too many races for many of today's thoroughbreds.
But he wasn't the only one. Four other horses competing in Saturday's Belmont Stakes were on their sixth race or more. And two of those, Commissioner and Medal Count, earned second and third place, respectively.
Should owners who hold back their horses in the Preakness, for example, be penalized or even banned from running in the Belmont Stakes as potential spoilers?
Maybe. There are strong arguments on both sides.
Should the three legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes -- be spread out over more than a five-week period?
But that's for others to hash out.
My point is this: Coburn may well be right. But the way he comported himself after the race was childish and petulant. Parents across America surely turned to their children following the big man's rant and transformed it into a teachable moment, a what-not-to-do moment.
Maybe more importantly, the bitter ending to this fractured fairy tale cannot and must not negate the great heart and immense talent Chrome and his team have exhibited throughout the year.
I've been in New York for four days covering this story. And one error by one overwrought owner cannot ruin it.
Nor can this single mistake ruin Coburn's reputation. A public apology would go a long way in demonstrating the kind of sportsmanship his colleagues and competitors deserve. Are you listening, Steve?
Finally, my last word is this:
If ever we were in danger of ceasing to believe in dreams; if our advances in science or the modern flood of data has made us prone to cynicism; if the wealth of our digital lives -- sometimes at the expense of the personal -- has made us more likely to sneer at belief in the impossible, or even the improbable; a 3-year-old chestnut colt with roots in the soil of the San Joaquin Valley may have saved us, at least for a while.
California Chrome, a thoroughbred owned not by Kentucky royalty or a bazillionaire from New York or Kuwait, but by working people of modest beginnings, may not have achieved the ultimate dream of winning the Triple Crown, but he may have taught us how to dream again.
And for that, I'm thankful.