When a horse gets to a big race without encountering any problems, the backstretch lingo is "not a straw in his path." In 1955, on the way to his first Kentucky Derby, young Art Sherman was covered with straw on a four-day journey from California.
Sherman rode in a railroad car from Los Angeles to Louisville with future Hall of Famer Swaps. Rank has its privileges, even between species, so the 3-year-old colt had first choice over the 18-year-old exercise rider about where they would sleep in the piled hay. Ah, the clacking of steel wheels and the smell of horse manure as you greet the dawn.
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"Oh yes, that was the good old days. It was me and the groom, the two of us in a sleeping bag, and Swaps on one side," the jovial Sherman said recently. "He was such a cool horse that I never thought about him ever trying to roll over or do anything. He was a kick to be around. He didn't have a mean part in his body.
"He reminds me so much of my horse, his demeanor. They're people kind of horses."
'Chrome' stands out
Sherman was referring to California Chrome, the heavy favorite for Saturday's 140th Kentucky Derby. Fifty-nine years later, after training more than 2,100 winners since 1979, the 77-year-old finally returns to America's most famous race, hopeful that his leggy chestnut colt can emulate Swaps.
California Chrome, 6-for-10 with earnings of $1,134,850, is undefeated and unchallenged since December, dominating four stakes by a combined 24 1/4 lengths for jockey Victor Espinoza.
"It's been a great experience," Sherman said. "A young horse comes to you and you have no idea he'll become the horse he is right now. I've never gotten so much publicity in my life."
Sherman said California Chrome's 5 1/4-length runaway April 5 in the Santa Anita Derby made the former jockey consider a comeback.
"I haven't been on a horse in at least 10 years," he said, "but I told Victor that if he keeps winning by that far, I might take my license back out."
Becoming a jockey
Born in Brooklyn in 1937, Sherman moved to the Los Angeles area with his family when he was 7 and later attended Whittier High School. He was a good athlete but small, so "I got my butt beat a lot."
Customers at his father's barber shop kept saying the kid should become a jockey. At 16, although he "knew nothing" about horses, he followed the advice, taking a job for $75 a month at a ranch in Ontario, Calif.
"I worked from morning to night, but I was glad to do it," he said. "I wanted to learn from the ground up."
He galloped horses for Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney, Swaps' owner and trainer, respectively.
"Mesh was a hands-on guy," Sherman said, "and he taught me a lot.'"
The 1955 Derby was glorious for Sherman. "That was great," he said. "It was quite an experience with all that hullabaloo. The Kentucky hardboots thought we were cowboys. They'd say, 'What are you doing? You're running in the Derby and you're jogging him bareback between the barns?"
After Swaps and Bill Shoemaker beat favored Nashua by 1 1/2 lengths, the locals shut up.
Sherman began a 21-year career as a jockey in 1957. He rode in Mexico, on both coasts and in the Midwest, with a win rate of less than 10 percent. His most memorable stakes victory came in the Barbara Fritchie in March 1959. Maryland's Laurel Racecourse is near Washington, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover enjoyed playing the horses there almost as much as he liked wiretapping people on his enemies list. Accompanying him that day was Vice President Richard Nixon, Whittier High's most famous alumnus. Nixon presented the trophy to Sherman, his Orange County homeboy, and got nostalgic.
"He said, 'I hear you're from my hometown,' " Sherman recalled. "I said, 'Sure am.' He said, 'Oh, man, that's nice. We're old neighbors.' ''
Nixon and Hoover walked Sherman back to the jockeys' room, surrounded by Secret Service agents. "The headlines the next day said 'Old Neighbors Meet,' '' Sherman said. "It was quite a thrill."
Like Nixon, California Chrome was bred in California of humble parentage. The colt was foaled in Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley, known for producing fruits and vegetables, not Derby favorites. His owners are self-proclaimed "simple working-class folk" Steve Coburn and Perry Martin of DAP Racing. Coburn works for a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and ID cards. Martin's field is consumer security. They bought Love the Chase for $8,000, paid a measly $2,500 to mate her with Lucky Pulpit, and out came California Chrome. Coburn said they recently rejected a $6-million offer for 51 percent of the first horse they bred. Only Nostradamus could have predicted such stunning success, and perhaps higher powers are at work here. Behold Coburn's prophecy.
"I had a dream about this colt two weeks before he was born," he said. "I told my wife, 'It's going to be a colt. He's going to be flashy with four white stocking feet and a big bald face,' and his baby pictures look just like that. I told them he was going to be something special."
Besides predicting victory in the Derby, Coburn texted Sherman a list of four races he targeted, and the colt swept them. Destiny also decreed that Derby Day shall be Coburn's 61st birthday. Whoa, now that's eerie.
Art Sherman's son Steve trained for Martin in Northern California, which explains the connection. Sixty-one years in the sport make the old trainer a bit more grounded than Coburn. Sherman wasn't sure he had his horse of a lifetime when he first set eyes on California Chrome.
"You always love to have dreams, but you've got to show me," Sherman said. "I believe in luck and fate, but I have to see the horse improve a whole lot, and this one really did. The road to the Derby for them has been very lucky because he's already won four of the races they had written down.
"So maybe they know a little bit more than I do now. I'm not sure."