LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- How long does it take to go from exercise rider of a Kentucky Derby winner to trainer of a Derby winner? For Art Sherman, it took 59 years.
He came to Churchill Downs as an 18-year-old groom for Swaps in 1955, and didn't even make the winner's circle picture. On Saturday, Sherman returned to the winner's circle as a guest of honor, the oldest man ever to saddle a Kentucky Derby champion.
California Chrome is the colt that took this 77-year-old trainer on the improbable ride of a lifetime. The 5-2 favorite cruised to victory in the 140th Kentucky Derby, sitting just behind the leaders through the first quarter-mile before kicking into gear at the mile marker. With a powerful move in the stretch, he drew off by five lengths, then coasted to a length and three-quarters victory against longshot Commanding Curve and the Todd Pletcher-trained Danza.
For a moment, Sherman felt like a rider again as he watched jockey Victor Espinoza guide his colt in the stretch.
"When I saw him spurt free, I said, now let me take over for the last 70 yards," said Sherman, who rode for 23 years before taking out his training license in 1980.
On Thursday of Derby week, Sherman made the short walk to the Churchill Downs frontside to visit the grave of Swaps. Once there, he said a little prayer. What was it?
"I prayed that he would be another Swaps," Sherman said.
He was. In fact, Swaps' blood is in California Chrome's breeding on the side of both his sire (Lucky Pulpit) and dam (Love the Chase).
Swaps was a California-bred who came East and proved himself by winning the Derby. Though California Chrome was the prohibitive Derby favorite coming into the race off four consecutive victories, each by five lengths or more, there were some around the Churchill Downs barns who still weren't believers.
They doubted his California breeding. Only three California-breds had won the race, and none since Decidedly in 1962. His home track of Los Alamitos, in Cypress, Calif., is better known for quarter-horses than thoroughbreds, and they doubted whether this chestnut colt had the class necessary to win the Derby.
They doubted whether he could start cleanly inside of a 19-horse field and whether he could handle the traffic that comes in the Derby.
His answers were flawless. On a sun-splashed day before a crowd of 164,906, the second largest in Kentucky Derby history, he broke cleanly, settled easily into stalking position and ran a perfectly-paced race until it was time to make his move. His winning time of 2:03.66 was the slowest over a fast track in the Derby since Cannonade in 1974, but he made believers of his rivals, drawing away in the stretch, then finishing easily with gas left in the tank while giving Espinoza his second Derby win.
"He ran his eyeballs out. He's really a nice horse to train, and I appreciate the owners to give me a chance," Sherman said. "There's a lot of other trainers out there and they picked me."
Steve Coburn and Perry Martin started their racing operation, Dumbass Partners, when a groom remarked of a mare they were about to buy, "anyone who decides to buy this horse is a dumb ass."
The first horse to race wearing the "DAP" silks of the new partnership is California Chrome. The owners were offered $6 million by an undisclosed buyer for 51 percent interest in the colt, but were planning to take him to a new trainer and race him under their stables. Coburn and Martin turned them down.
"It wasn't tough for us to say no," Coburn said. "Because we knew within our souls what kind of horse we had."
And what kind of horse is that? One that Coburn and Sherman unabashedly touted as a Triple Crown threat.
"California Chrome is the rock star, and I'm his manager, and we're going all the way," Sherman said.
California Chrome paid $7, 5.60 and 4.20 to win. Commanding Curve, who gave Louisville-based trainer Dallas Stewart a second consecutive runner-up finish with a horse who qualified for the race only when another horse scratched, paid $31.80 and 15.40 to place. Third-place Danza paid $6.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky. Eric Crawford writes for WDRB.
First Published May 3, 2014 7:18 PM