Preakness Stakes: California Chrome trainer Art Sherman, 77, is on ride of a lifetime

May 16

After California Chrome streaked to victory by more than five lengths in April’s Santa Anita Derby, the colt’s owners presented trainer Art Sherman with a Kentucky Derby cap so he could tell the world what the horse had just proclaimed: The California-bred colt was the favorite for the Run for the Roses.

Sherman wanted no part of the cap. It was a bad omen in the view of the 77-year-old trainer, who refuses to look too far ahead when it comes to the care and cultivation of racehorses, custom-tailoring their routine to their mood each day.

While Sherman may be old school in that regard, he’s hardly a slave to racing superstition or tradition; for instance, he scoffs at the old saw that horses with four white feet never amount to much.

California Chrome enters Saturday’s Preakness Stakes having won the Kentucky Derby on four sure-footed white stockings. In fact, he has won his past five consecutive races by a combined 26 lengths.

Sherman also sees no sense in the Triple Crown’s cramped calendar, even if it is tradition. He is uneasy about the demands it places on the horses, with the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes jammed in a five-week span.

“You have to be a super horse on the Triple Crown trail, to me,” said Sherman, the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. “It’s tough on a horse. It takes that certain horse that has the ability to do this.

“And I’m just hoping it’s mine, right now.”

Winning the Derby represented a crowning achievement for Sherman, a Brooklyn native who has spent his last six decades in barns and on backstretches having worked his way from stable boy, exercise rider and jockey to trainer.

His Los Alamitos-based Sherman Racing Stables is a modest operation; it has fewer than 20 horses and a staff of longtime employees that consists of family and horse people who may as well be family.

Sherman’s younger son, Alan, shares training duties with his father. His wife, Faye, pays the bills. California Chrome’s groom, Raul Rodriguez, has worked for Sherman for 15 years, as has Rodriguez’s wife, brother and son.

The operation reflects a modest man.

Sherman’s life has changed not one iota since California Chrome took off on his winning tear in December, though his wife did buy him a new suit on the eve of the recent Kentucky Derby — his first as a trainer. (Sherman was the exercise rider for the 1955 Derby winner, Swaps.)

He still keeps the same hours at the stables. And he’s first at the tracks when they open, although it has taken some juggling these last two weeks to squeeze in interviews with CBS, NBC and all the reporters who want to talk to him.

Earlier this week at Pimlico Race Course, Sherman was directed to a platform erected just outside Stall No. 40, reserved for the Derby winner, to field questions from the throng of journalists curious about the Preakness favorite and the sport’s lone hope for snapping the now 35-year drought of Triple Crown winners.

Thoroughbred racing certainly has its share of rock-star trainers — horsemen with creased jeans, starched shirts and perfectly coiffed hair who arrive at paddocks looking as if they just alit from private Lear jets.

Sherman isn’t among them. His barn-wear and bearing are as common as a bale of hay.

“I figure I’m lucky when I can pull my boots on in the morning: I’ve got another day,” he says with a chuckle.

And though his chestnut colt has humble origins, too — the product of an $8,000 mare bred for a $2,000 fee — California Chrome has become something of an equine rock star.

He has his own southern California billboard with his name in lights. It proclaims: “California Chrome, Home of the Kentucky Derby Winner.” He has a fervent following of fans known as Chromies. And he doesn’t even mind the paparazzi.

“He is a ham,” says Alan Sherman, who traveled from Churchill Downs to Pimlico with California Chrome earlier this week to get him settled. “He loves the cameras. He’ll stand up there on the track for an hour, if you let him, just sitting there watching horses and posing for the camera.”

Based on experience and recent performance, California Chrome should do another star turn Saturday as the odds-on favorite for the 139th running of the 13 / 16-mile Preakness Stakes.

But unknowns abound. The field of 10 is low on star-wattage, with just two other Derby horses making the trip: Ride on Curlin, (seventh at Churchill Downs) and General a Rod (11th). That could play in California Chrome’s favor, or it could bite him, given that seven others will have fresher legs.

It’s also debatable how much raw speed the chestnut colt can generate. His Derby winning time, 2 minutes 3.66 seconds, was the slowest in 40 years over a fast track.

Sherman dismisses skeptics, pointing out that California Chrome ran the second-fastest Santa Anita Derby ever. And nothing makes the horse happier, he says, than running at a target.

“If he can come out of there and be fourth going around the turn and fourth down the back side and have a clear path,” the veteran trainer says, “you’re going to see old Chrome perform.”

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