Amid genteel waiters passing impossibly small hors d'oeuvres and impeccably groomed topiaries crafted to look like tiny pyramids, stood Steve Coburn -- faded jeans, Texas-size belt buckle and a tan cowboy hat that bopped up and down with every strong opinion.
Coburn, the co-owner of unlikely Triple Crown contender California Chrome, cemented his role as Belmont's resident straight-shooting good ol' boy Tuesday at a media luncheon on the rooftop garden patio at Rockefeller Center.
He talked about the media hoopla around horse racing ("it's a black eye . . . everything's gotta be a big theatrical performance"), California Chrome's low Beyer speed rating, used to rate thoroughbreds ("[Andrew] Beyer, he hates us and I hate him"), and owners opting out of either of the first two Triple Crown races only to take a shot at the Belmont ("it's all three or nothing").
It's nothing he hasn't said before and something, he added, that he'll probably be forced to repeat a bunch of times before all the souped-up publicity gives him a chance to enjoy a meal in peace. After the lunch Tuesday, Coburn noted, he faced a rush-hour trip back to Garden City, where he'd then have to scramble to meet yet another media member for dinner.
"The horse racing industry these days is going down," he said, reiterating that the relentless pomp distracted from the actual race. "We're just trying to bring a little fun back in the game . . . We're just a couple of good ol' boys having a good time and we're just doing everything we can to do all the publicity. But it could be a lot easier than they actually make it."
But even if Coburn professes to hate the extra publicity, the frenzy that surrounded him, and, in particular, California Chrome's growing mythos, seemed to show that he's fairly good at it.
At the official news conference later, he described Chrome as "a people's horse . . . America's horse," noting that a difficult birth meant that he'd had almost no interaction with other horses as a foal.
"He became really attached to people," Coburn said. "He really loves people. If you'll notice, if you're holding up a camera, he'll stop. He'll let you take his picture."
Chrome's mother, an $8,000 mare named Love the Chase, nearly died birthing him. Coburn and the other owner, Perry Martin, were mocked for even buying her.
California Chrome is considered both a favorite, for his past performances, and an underdog because of his humble origins.
And, as the story continues to grow, Coburn continues to have to tell it -- as bombastically as he pleases -- even though all he really wants to do is just see his horse win Saturday.
"Yes, I do expect him to win," he said. "I really do."
He spoke a few moments more and glanced over the horde of questioning people, seemingly toward the table of fancy crackers and hummus -- so close, but so far.
"All right, guys," he said. "Now I gotta get something to eat."