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.
Everyone else in California Chrome's entourage seemed to understand this and to appreciate that their champion gave everything he had to give. Chrome kicked himself out of the gate -- grabbing a quarter, the horse people call it -- and still showed enough heart to inspire more than 100,000 New Yorkers to scream at the top of their lungs in a vain bid to carry him home.
But the losing team knew it still had a winner. The vast majority of the losing team, anyway.
Art Sherman, trainer: "We had such a good run with him. ... He's got nothing to prove to anybody."
Alan Sherman, Art's son and assistant trainer: "The horse tried. That's all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life. I'll always have that in my heart for that horse."
Victor Espinoza, jockey: "Regardless of what happens, we move on and I'm just honored to be with him and have such a nice ride with all his victories that we had with him."
Coburn should've stayed on message here, because the story was too pure to stain. This might be the sport of kings and a hobby for bluebloods and barons, princes and sheikhs, but Coburn had made it perfectly clear that California Chrome was meant to bring the two-dollar bettor back to the window.
With two legs of the Triple Crown already in his hip pocket, Coburn said, "This horse has given everyone else out there the incentive to say, 'You know what? We can do it, too.' It may not be a racehorse. It may be the idea that they have in their head or a new product or whatever the case may be. But we just hope that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win."
Ever since Cauthen rode Affirmed into legend in '78, a dozen horses had taken the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the same season and then failed to make history at the Belmont. Maybe the greatest of those hard-luck losers, Spectacular Bid, stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont in '79, and a drought nobody saw coming was born.
Much like California Chrome, a couple of working man's horses, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, captured the nation's imagination on the long, winding road to Long Island in 2003 and 2004. Funny Cide was owned by a bunch of knock-around guys from upstate Sackets Harbor, New York, population 1,436, who were hesitant to kick in five grand apiece to get in the thoroughbred game.
They voted on a Memorial Day Monday to pony up, voted right there on the ex-mayor's porch two days after they decided they'd downed too many beers to make the call. They drove around in a yellow bus and delivered racing to the masses the way Arnold Palmer delivered golf to them, at least until torrential rain turned Belmont into a mud pit that swallowed Funny Cide alive.
As Smarty Jones prepared to make his run the following year, that ex-mayor, J.P. Constance, said that his group should've scratched Funny Cide, that racing's elders should've canceled the race "if you seriously consider the danger they put those animals in." Smarty Jones had better conditions to work with but no better luck. A "Rocky"-esque underdog out of Philly with another band of Average Joes in tow -- including owners and a jockey who were recovering alcoholics -- Smarty Jones couldn't hold off a charging Birdstone and broke America's heart.
A decade later, California Chrome didn't plan on doing the same. Coburn kept predicting a Triple Crown triumph that would go down among the great horse stories of them all, right there with Seabiscuit's takedown of War Admiral.
Everyone wanted to see it happen, even Tonalist's owner, Robert Evans. Everyone loved Chrome's nickel-and-dime background, loved his white blaze and white socks, loved every page of what the legendary Cauthen himself had called a "one-in-a-billion story."
But for the 13th time since Cauthen's triumph, it wasn't meant to be at the Belmont. On California Chrome's walk back to the barn, fans yelled encouragement to him. "We still love you," shouted one. "You're still a badass; I don't care what anyone says," another yelled.
Meanwhile, the man in the cowboy hat was shooting from the hip. If nothing else, Steve Coburn sure knew how to ruin a great story.