GARDNERVILLE, Nev. — Theirs is an unexpected love affair, which began with a slap on the knee and the words, ‘‘Let’s dance.’’
Steve Coburn and Carolyn Black were in their 40s and relationship-weary from marriages gone bad. They were introduced at a party, and Coburn wanted to dance. He found Carolyn ‘‘real pretty’’; she found him ‘‘kind of loud.’’
‘‘He taught me to do the two-step,’’ Carolyn said softly, smiling at the recollection. ‘‘He comes across kind of red-neckish, but he’s such a gentle soul.’’
Coburn sipped his Coors. ‘‘Oh, I know how to dance,’’ he said. ‘‘I can do the ‘Fat Boy Boogie’ pretty damn good.’’
The Coburns, married now for 20 years, believe the planets aligned to bring them together. In the same way, they hold firm that some greater force handed them another improbable gift: a thoroughbred they call Junior, known to the world as California Chrome, the copper-colored colt with flashy white markings who has a date with destiny Saturday as he tries to win horse racing’s Triple Crown.
The Coburns are part-owners of Chrome — as they also call him — who after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes will try for racing’s holy grail at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. The horse has taken the couple on the ride of their lives, inspired a seen-it-all 77-year-old trainer to dance until dawn, and given an overlooked jockey — who grew up in Mexico riding donkeys — one final chance at racing immortality.
And Chrome’s defy-all-odds precociousness has made the Coburns — he works in a factory, clocks out for lunch, and is a gunsmith on the side — the blue-collar antidote to the Kentucky bluebloods.
‘‘We have pissed off a lot of people in Kentucky, and in the thoroughbred industry,’’ chuckled Steve, sitting in his favorite local lunch spot, Hamdogs, where beer is the drink of choice and meat sandwiches are small mountains. ‘‘They’ve thrown everything at this colt, and he’s proved them wrong over and over again — and they just can’t figure it out.’’
What people can’t figure out is how the Coburns hit the equine lotto with the first ticket they bought, at a store no one particularly liked. They are first-time thoroughbred owners, put just $10,500 into the mare and sire who produced Chrome, and recently turned down more than $8 million in offers for a stake in Chrome and his mom. Junior was born in California to a filly deemed nervous and a stallion dismissed as washed up. The colt was never supposed to be a running machine that has won his last six starts by a combined 271/2 lengths.
A California-bred horse has never won the Triple Crown. Only four ‘‘Cal-breds’’ have won the Derby in its 140-year history, and a Cal-bred has never won the Preakness, first raced in 1873. More than 20,000 thoroughbred foals are born in the United States every year, and only 19 3-year-olds made it to the start of this year’s Derby at Churchill Downs. Chrome’s saddle pad for the Derby, made by the folks in Kentucky, had ‘‘California’’ spelled ‘‘Califorina.’’
‘‘How the hell do you misspell ‘California,’ ‘‘ said Steve, whose 61st birthday was on Derby day, May 3. ‘‘The state is on the map. It shows they didn’t think much of a Cal-bred.’’
The Coburns were pulled into racing by Carolyn’s interest in playing the ponies.
‘‘I went on a junket to the Santa Anita racetrack with a bunch of people in the ‘80s and thought it would be so boring,’’ said Carolyn, 63, who recently retired as an accountant. ‘‘I fell in love with it: the horses, the game, going to the track. I learned how to read the racing form. I learned how to bet.’’
Steve chimed in: ‘‘She taught me everything she knows, and she wins and I lose.’’
Carolyn rolled her eyes. ‘‘That’s because you don’t listen.’’
Their hobby took a serious turn in 2009, when they bought into a syndicate with 15 other people who owned a filly named Love the Chase. The horse loved people and looked pretty, but lacked speed, winning only one start in six races. When the syndicate wanted her sold, the Coburns — along with another couple, Denise and Perry Martin, who live near Sacramento — stepped in and bought her outright. The Coburns spent $8,000: $4,000 initially for a 5 percent stake and another $4,000 to share ownership with the Martins.
‘‘We were told we were dumb asses if we planned to buy and race this filly,’’ Steve said. ‘‘But we loved that horse from the moment we met her. I never know when she’s going to do it, but at some point during our visits, she’ll come over and put her head over my shoulder and just rest it there.’’
The Coburns and Martins bred Love the Chase at Harris Farms in Coalinga (Fresno County) to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit, who had breathing problems and never won a major race.
‘’Perry (Martin) looked at their pedigrees and thought they would be a good match,’’ Steve said of his partner, who runs a materials testing facility at the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County.
He added, ‘‘When you go back generations, the bloodlines of both horses are pretty impressive,’’ and include Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Numbered Account, the granddaughter of Swaps, the 1955 Cal-bred Derby winner.
On Feb. 18, 2011, Love the Chase delivered the muscular 137-pound California Chrome, who dragged a hoof on the way out and lacerated his mother’s uterus.
‘‘She started bleeding pretty bad and we almost lost her,’’ Steve said. ‘‘She had an IV and they kept her and Chrome in the stall for about a month, which is unusual for a colt. He got that time with his mom, and also saw people come in and help. That’s where he learned to be with people and trust people.’’
The Coburns went to visit Harris Farms in the Central Valley as often as they could, and Steve had a feeling about Junior from the moment they met.
‘’He was born on my sister’s birthday,’’ Steve said. ‘‘My sister Brenda died of cancer at 36. It’s been 36 years since anyone has won the Triple Crown. When I saw Junior, when I saw this baby, I just had a rush of emotion fill me. I told Carolyn, ‘I don’t care what it takes, I don’t care what we have to do. This horse is going to be something big and we need to make sure he gets to do what he’s bred to do.’ ‘‘
He looked down at his hands. The tough cowboy, who drives an old truck, has roped cattle, and works long hours in a nearby factory that puts magnetic strips on credit cards, grew emotional.
‘‘Before every race, I step aside and say a prayer to my sister,’’ he said. ‘‘I believe she’s Junior’s guardian angel. And I say a few words to my mother-in-law, Mary, who passed away this year. She thought Chrome was just fantastic. And she told me I was the only cowboy she ever loved. I call her my Mother Mary. So, we’ve just got a lot of angels on this horse.’’
The Coburns — who have five children and eight grandchildren from prior marriages — talk about Junior as proud parents describe a child. At 3 months, Junior would see them coming, run to the fence and whinny for the Mrs. Pastures horse cookies proffered by Steve. ‘‘He’d eat a handful of cookies and then go to his mama and suckle,’’ Steve said, laughing. ‘‘Milk and cookies, milk and cookies.’’
Junior soon became the alpha male of the herd, and had his share of nicks and cuts.
‘‘He’s a very intelligent horse,’’ Carolyn said. ‘‘Just look at his eyes. I remember after he won the Preakness, there were hundreds of people around and cameras and all this commotion. He was calm and looking up at the sky. He was watching a helicopter. When it went away, his attention returned.’’
Steve added, ‘‘What’s amazing about this horse is that before the race, Chrome is just walking and checking things out. His lead rein is loose. I honestly believe — and people think I’m crazy, though I’ve been called crazy before — that when this horse steps out on the track, he’s getting a mental picture of his surroundings. He knows what’s fixin’ to happen, and what needs to happen. He conserves his energy for the race.’’
Junior also happens to be a character. ‘‘He likes to pose for pictures,’’ Carolyn said. After every race, Steve kisses Chrome on the muzzle.
‘‘We kiss and then he tells me no French kissy,’’ Steve said, as he and Carolyn broke into laughter. ‘‘Seriously, this horse loves the game. He’s got the heart and will, and he never gives up. He’s what you call a push-button horse. You can get him up to speed, hold him at that pace and then ask for a burst of speed.’’
The Coburns credit their partners, the Martins; Chrome’s trainer, a septuagenarian named Art Sherman who called the Bay Area home for more than four decades; and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, who started his career at Bay Meadows in San Mateo and Golden Gate Fields in Albany, and had a chance at the Triple Crown in 2002 with a horse named War Emblem, who stumbled out of the gate and never caught up.
Sherman, who was an exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, ran a stable for years at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. His wife of 53 years worked in the Bay Meadows gift shop for 30 years. His son Alan works with him at the Los Alamitos track and son Steve runs a stable at Golden Gate Fields.
The Coburns expect about 40 friends and relatives to join them for the race on Saturday. And all of Gardnerville — a town of 5,600 with the saloon Buckaroos on the main drag — will be rooting for their hometown heroes.
Steve, who has a new $300 Stetson in the closet, will instead wear his 11-year-old white cowboy hat given to him by Carolyn on his 50th birthday.
‘‘I’m most anxious when Chrome goes into the gate,’’ Steve said, sipping another Coors as a group of men played pool nearby. ‘‘He’ll get anxious because he wants to charge ahead.’’
Carolyn nodded. ‘‘I’m nervous the entire race.’’
Though the Coburns and Martins have made a lot of money on Chrome, they’ve also spent a great deal on maintenance, training and insurance.
‘‘Our portion of the insurance on Chrome, on Love the Chase, and her babies (Chrome has two younger sisters), is $40,000 every three months,’’ Steve said. ‘‘My wife’s retirement check takes care of our house payment, but I’m working to pay for everything else. Until this horse started winning, we were dipping into our savings and retirement accounts. Now we’re above the game, but we’ve got a baby who’s going into training and a suckling. If you are going to stay in the game, the bills don’t stop.’’
But as Carolyn said, ‘‘This was never about money.’’
Steve nodded. ‘‘It’s about watching our dream come true. Just because Junior is Cal-bred makes no difference. Just because we’re working-class people makes no difference. I came back from Kentucky on a Sunday and went to work early the next morning. When we were offered $6 million for Chrome, we not only said no, we said hell no. This is our horse. He lays his heart out for you every time he races.’’
Carolyn, who still laughs at the way the two met, when the brash cowboy swatted her on the knee, said the best part about their amazing ride has been seeing Steve’s dream realized.
‘‘It started really with Love the Chase,’’ Carolyn said. ‘‘If you only knew how much he believed in Love the Chase, when everyone else had given up on her. He felt in his heart she had something. Then with Chrome, he would get under the fence and bond. He’s like a horse whisperer.’’
Steve still looks at Carolyn with the same admiration he felt when the two first met.
‘’I got fat and old,’’ Carolyn demurred.
‘‘Well so did I,’’ Steve said. ‘‘So did I.’’
Getting up to leave, Steve and Carolyn found themselves surrounded by well-wishers.
‘‘This is turning the sport of kings upside down,’’ he said, noting that he and the Martins named their racing operations Dumb Ass Partners. ‘‘We’re just dumb ass partners who did our homework and came up with a fantastic horse.’’
Heading to the parking lot, to his truck with about 500,000 miles on it, Steve paused.
‘‘You look at past generations, and when all of the moons and stars in the universe line up, you get a horse like ours,’’ he said. ‘‘People are willing to spend millions and millions to achieve it. We got lucky.’’
Smiling at Carolyn, he added, ‘‘This is a miracle story and we’re blessed. We’re very blessed.’’