"Hey, Sophia Loren, baby, how are you?" Steve Coburn, co-owner of Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome, called out to a woman he thought resembled the actress, who was standing across from him at Barn 4 at Belmont Park.
It was about an hour before race time, and Coburn, wearing a purple shirt, green tie, beige cowboy hat, and a blazer that had a large button reading "Got Chrome" on it, was having a good ol' time. He was loose and loveable, with his walrus mustache and large personality.
"They tell me I'm the next John Wayne," Coburn said to the surrounding crowd, which included his co-owner Perry Martin, who barely makes a peep. "We can make a pretty good movie together."
But after California Chrome finished tied for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, adding to a maddening Triple Crown drought that is now 36 years old, Coburn was far from ducal. In his post-race interview on NBC, he ranted about the Triple Crown setup, lamenting the fact that horses that don't run both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are still eligible for the Belmont Stakes, making them fresh for the tortuous 1.5-mile test.
"This is coward's way out," Coburn said. "If you've got a horse, run him in all three." His wife looked like she was trying to get him to stop talking. "I don't care," he could be heard snarling afterwards, presumably after a chiding from Mrs. Coburn.
Not that he didn't have a point. In most sports, the playing field is level: you play the same amount of games in the regular season before the playoffs. The problem is that Coburn got sour on a sick horse. Tonalist, the Belmont winner, got ill before the Wood Memorial, a key prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Without running in the Wood, Tonalist could not earn enough points to qualify for the Derby. That's not cowardly, Steve.
Also, an injury might have cost Calfornia Chrome anyway. His right front foot had a patch of blood on it after the race. At some point during the run, the shoe of his back right foot overextended and clipped the flesh of his front one.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, when a Triple Crown hopeful can't catch the leader down the stretch at Belmont, the deflation that hangs over the crowd is oppressive indeed. Written on every face is the question, "Will we ever see another Triple Crown in our lifetimes?"
"He's a push-button horse," said a still hopeful Chrome fan, Amy Arvanitis, while her horse was in fourth at the three-quarter-mile mark. Arvanitis, who is friends with Chrome trainer Art Sherman, was watching near the rail at the finish line. At the mile, he was still in fourth. "Come on, Victor, come on baby!" said Arvanitis, imploring California Chrome's jockey, Victor Espinoza, to open things up. But the horse just didn't have it. "Aw f--k!" she exclaimed, just before the finish. Right after, she dropped her lip and made a tragic face. "I'm devastated."
Kathleen Dunagan, an artist and equestrian hobbyist with a close attachment to California Chrome, had tears in her eyes as she left the track. "I thought he was going to be our Seabiscuit," Dunagan said.
California Chrome's backstory has the underdog elements: Coburn and Martin, who barely knew each other, dropped $8,000 on an unimpressive filly, Love the Chase. A groom said whoever bought Love the Chase was a dumbass, so they named their new ownership group Dumb Ass Partners. Coburn and Martin mated Love the Chase to another underwhelming horse, Lucky Pulpit, and somehow they produced a near Triple Crown winner. "He just came out of nowhere," says Dunagan. "I thought it was going to just be so wonderful. I'm sorry, I usually don't get so emotional about that stuff." Dunagan kept on walking — and crying.
Before the race, the California Chrome team could not have been more confident. With more than three hours to go until post time, Chrome's exercise rider, Willie Delgado, entered the horse's barn with a case of Coors Light and a bag of ice. Alan Sherman, California Chrome's assistant trainer — and son of Art — walked outside with a beer in his left hand, cigarette in his right. When asked to describe Chrome's morning workout, Delgado said he "was like a monster." He has just been in the horse's stall, and said "what's up boy, you going to do this?" California Chrome's ears perked up, Delgado said. That, to him, was a clear answer. "Hell, yes."
Afterwards, Delgado insisted he wasn't devastated. "I'm not sad, not sad," Delgado said back at the barn. "He gave he the ride of my life. He's still my hero."
If only all those people at Belmont could say the same.