Steve Coburn was admittedly on edge returning to the site of his homebred colt’s signature triumph.
But even in the wake of his controversial statements made after California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid ended with a fourth-place run in last weekend’s Belmont Stakes, Coburn and partner Perry Martin received their share of warm greetings – mixed in with a few jeers - from the Churchill Downs crowd Saturday evening as they returned to Louisville to accept their engraved Kentucky Derby trophies.
Embraced as part of the humble, blue-collar fairytale that was California Chrome’s backstory, Coburn drew ire last week when he ranted after the Belmont that horses like race winner Tonalist – who did not run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness - had taken “the coward’s way out” by not competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
After doubling down on those statements in follow up interviews with Good Morning America and ESPN Sunday morning, Coburn appeared contrite and apologized for his words during another interview with Good Morning America on Monday.
Bracing for what was a mixed reaction, Coburn nonetheless received many shouts of thanks and was sought out by several autograph seekers as he and Martin made their way into the Churchill Downs winner’s circle to receive their officials spoils from the first Saturday in May.
“Yeah, I was nervous. Because of what’s happened,” Coburn said after the ceremony. “But then when I get here and I see all these fans and our followers. I got some boos. I deserved them. But then, we’ve got a tremendous fan base.
“They love this horse. You can hate me all you want to. But don’t hate my horse, because he’s the real star. Not me. He’s the star. It’s all about the horse, not me.”
Though Coburn apologized for his remarks, he didn’t totally back off from his stance that the format of the Triple Crown needed to be adjusted.
“Since the Belmont, you know, I gave my phone number out on national television,” Coburn said. “I’ve had over 1,000 text messages and 1,000 phone calls. Ninety-seven percent of these people agree with me.
“Some of these phone calls were from big owners and big trainers, along with the little guys, from all over the world. And they agree with me. Something needs to be done to keep this an even playing field for all the horses. To me it’s all about the horse. You want to keep your horses healthy and sound. It’s a grueling race. If I ever had another horse to win the Kentucky Derby, I’d have to talk to (Martin) and say, ‘You know what, I don’t want to go to the other two because it’s too tough on a horse’.”
Coburn had also previously been critical of the treatment he said he and Martin received from the Churchill Downs staff Kentucky Derby. When questioned about that on Saturday, both said those issues had been discussed and put behind them.
“These folks met us with open arms today. We’ve talked,” Coburn said. “They said they’re going to do everything they can to make it better, and I take their word on it. So, we’re good. We’re all good.”
Most importantly, Coburn said the California Chrome was on the mend back in his home state after having a chunk of his right front hoof taken on when it appeared he was stepped on by Matterhorn coming out of the gate of the Belmont. Despite that ailment, the dual classic winner was only beaten about two lengths while finishing in a dead heat with Wicked Strong for fourth.
“We did our best. We gave it our best shot,” Coburn said. “He just came up a little too short. But it’s a horse race. And a good horse won the race. A very good horse. So no regrets with our horse. He ran his eyeballs out on a bad foot right from the gate. So it’s good.”