ELMONT, N.Y. -- The man in the cowboy hat and the Wild West mustache, Steve Coburn, was living large with the main event less than 45 minutes away. As he stood outside a barn while his horse, California Chrome, was being prepped inside, Coburn assumed the role of mayor of Belmont Park.
He was signing autographs, posing for pictures and assuring one woman that people keep telling him he looks like John Wayne. Coburn waved over an 8-year-old boy, Chance Robinson from New Jersey, and slapped his 10-gallon hat on young Chance's head.
"He's going to remember this forever," said the boy's mother, Rabia, while her fiancé, Travis, took a photo. Travis said he'd made it to the Belmont Stakes the last time a horse won the Triple Crown. He saw Affirmed beat Alydar in 1978, and he said the winning 18-year-old jockey, Steve Cauthen, became his instant idol.
Thirty-six years later, Coburn the co-owner was ready to become as big a part of the Belmont as Cauthen was way back then. He was wearing a cream-colored jacket, purple shirt, green tie and a "Chrome" sticker on his lapel. The horseman, who works full time in a factory that makes magnetic strips for credit cards (no, you can't make that up), was dressed for a big party, and for good reason: He'd promised over and over that his chestnut colt would win the Belmont just like he'd won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
But when the race was over, Coburn devolved into a party pooper of the worst kind. Tonalist, who hadn't competed at Churchill Downs or at Pimlico, had come in first, and Commissioner, also making his Triple Crown debut, had come in second. A spent and injured Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth, behind an opponent, Medal Count, that also didn't show up for the Preakness.
"I'm 61 years old, and in my lifetime, I'll never see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this," Coburn ranted to NBC. "I look at it this way: If you can't make enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races."
Coburn wasn't finished, not even close. "This is the coward's way out, in my opinion," he said. "This is a coward's way out."
If this was all Coburn had to offer, he should've followed the lead of his media-shy partner, Perry Martin. This was poor sportsmanship to the max, an ugly end to a beautiful five-week ride. The horse and everyone around him deserved so much better than this amateur-hour spectacle, as Coburn passed on an opportunity to celebrate Chrome's competitive spirit for a chance on this warm, sunshiny day to rain all over Tonalist's parade.
"If you've got a horse," he barked, "run him in all three [Triple Crown races]."
Only Tonalist was too sick to go in the Wood Memorial, costing him a chance to compete at the Kentucky Derby. The record shows he was healthy enough Saturday to cover the endless mile-and-a-half track faster than California Chrome and the rest of the horses in the field.
That's life. That's sports. Sometimes, a nicked-up basketball player sits out a quarter, or a game, to prepare for a more winnable contest down the road. Sometimes, a road-weary tennis player skips a tournament or tanks a set to preserve energy for a more consequential Grand Slam moment.