Trainer Art Sherman savors the moment after California Chrome's win in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
There are probably tens of thousands of horsemen who suffer an acute case of Kentucky Derby Fever each spring.
Then there’s Art Sherman.
“I don’t know what Derby Fever is,” he says.
He’s not kidding. As much as racing has played a major role in the life of the 77-year-old California-based trainer, he has only been to the Kentucky Derby twice. The first came when he was the exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. He made it back the following year while working with Terrang, who finished 12th, and then vowed that he would not return until he had a legitimate contender.
True to his word, one decade after another passed, 21 years as a jockey and now 34 as a trainer, and Sherman spent each and every first Saturday in May on the West Coast.
Until this year.
Don’t look now, but Sherman has his bags packed for Louisville, and it’s all thanks to one of the more improbable Kentucky Derby favorites in recent memory.
Preparing for a race that features the sport’s most regally bred runners and biggest and most famous stables, Sherman will head to Kentucky on April 28 with a California-bred colt from an obscure sire who trains at Los Alamitos in Orange County and began his 3-year-old season with a triumph in the Cal Cup Derby.
Fifty-nine years later, California Chrome has Sherman once again talking about the Kentucky Derby.
“I’ve always said I only want to go to the Derby with a contender,” Sherman says, “and I really do have one with him. I’ll leave it at that.”
Sherman and the rest of the racing industry learned all they needed to know about California Chrome’s Triple Crown credentials on April 5 when the odds-on, 7-to-10 favorite toyed with seven opponents in the $1-million Santa Anita Derby and won by 5 ¼ lengths in 1:47.52, the fifth-fastest clocking in the long-and-proud history of the 79-year-old Grade 1 stakes.
It was a victory that stamped owners Steve Coburn’s and Perry Martin’s homebred son of Lucky Pulpit as a near unanimous choice for the No. 1 spot in this week’s National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll and legitimized California Chrome’s eye-opening 7 ¼-length victory in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes a month earlier.
CO-OWNER COBURN ALSO SPIKED DERBY FEVER
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
“He’s undefeated at three and he’s won his three races this year by 17-plus lengths. How many times do you see that? You have to sit back and enjoy it and go one race at a time,” says Sherman, who owns more than 2,100 victories as a trainer. “That’s my philosophy. Just get him ready to run and hope he gets a good trip.
“To me, the San Anita Derby was more impressive than the San Felipe since it was a more demanding race and had a stronger field. I’m just sitting back and enjoying this. The horse has to do the running, so he’s the rock star and I’m the manager. He has more fans in California than you would ever believe. Everybody loves California Chrome.”
California may be home to the movie industry and a galaxy of stars, yet in horse racing major stars born and bred in the Golden State have been few and far between. Only three California-breds have raced in the last 10 editions of the Kentucky Derby and the state’s last Derby winner was Decidedly in 1962.
Sherman knows as well as anyone how the odds can be stacked against a Cal-bred in a Grade 1 stakes, yet he can also speak from experience about toppling them.
Swaps introduced Sherman to racing on its biggest stage as the Cal-bred engaged in a legendary rivalry with Nashua. Swaps won the 1955 Derby, but skipped the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, which went to Nashua. Nashua beat Swaps later in the year in a famed match race, but Swaps cemented his spot in the Hall of Fame by winning 19 of 25 career starts and earning $848,900.
“Swaps was a super horse. He set six world records and I was young kid going along for the ride with him. It was awesome,” Sherman says. “It was just a thrill to be with him and go out of California for the first time. It was overwhelming for a young kid to see what goes on at the Derby. You don’t realize until you look back now how special it was.”
California Chrome has helped to refresh Sherman’s memory of those long-ago days during the Eisenhower administration by doing some of the same things Swaps did at the same point in his illustrious career. Sherman will not place California Chrome on the same pedestal as Swaps, but he can’t ignore some of the similarities he’s already seen.
“It’s hard to compare a young horse to one that set so many records in a year filled with so many good horses. That’s not to say California Chrome isn’t as good as Swaps. We don’t know that yet,” Sherman says. “But he is running lights out. He ran the fifth-fastest Santa Anita Derby, so that’s a feather in his cap. Both horses won the Santa Anita Derby so we’re on the same trail and California Chrome won by more than Swaps (4 3/4 lengths more). I look for him to improve as he gets older and, hopefully, he will not have too hard of a time in the Triple Crown and can stick around after that.”
Much like Swaps a generation ago, California Chrome has also increased respect for Cal-breds through his scintillating efforts on the Triple Crown trail.
CALIFORNIA CHROME CRUISES IN SANTA ANITA DERBY
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
“We don’t have all of the top sires in the world here, and there are not that many graded stakes winners who are sires here,” Sherman says. “California-breds can have trouble against open company, so we didn’t know how good California Chrome really was. But when you look at the results of the last two races we found out.
“I think he can change the way people look at Cal-breds. His sire’s stud fee has jumped from $2,500 to $10,000, and I guess that’s not surprising.”
That inflated stud fee just might skyrocket again next month if California Chrome can continue to mirror Swaps’ accomplishments. It certainly will not be easy for the chestnut colt at Churchill Downs, and some observers have legitimate concerns about a son of Lucky Pulpit tackling the 1 ¼-mile distance against the best horses in his division. But not Sherman.
“I don’t think the mile and a quarter will be a problem,” says Sherman, who registered the richest victory of his career in the Santa Anita Derby. “He was wrapped up the last 70 yards at a mile and an eighth [in the Santa Anita Derby] and [jockey Victor Espinoza] said he was breezing at the end. I can’t see where an extra eighth of a mile will make that much of a difference for a horse who won so easily while racing in hand. I’ve ridden horses and he looks like a horse that will go a mile and a quarter, no problem.”
And so, it’s off to the Bluegrass State for Sherman. It took 59 years, but thanks to California Chrome, he once again has a reason to feel giddy about the Kentucky Derby.
“Everybody dreams about it,” Sherman says. “If they say they don’t, they are being very naïve about things. It is every trainer’s dream to have a contender in the Derby and to just get there is tough. It’s a lot different than it used to be. You need good racing luck or you’re behind the eight ball.
“It’s a pretty awesome feeling right now. It’s going to be quite a road and we’re looking forward to it. I’ve had a lot of well-wishers and friends that text me all the time. It’s one of those deals. Once you get on that Derby Trail, you get a lot of publicity.”
Sometimes, even after all these years, you get Derby Fever.