LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Before he arrived Monday at Churchill Downs with Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome, Art Sherman had a scary thought. "Oh God, they're all waiting for me," the 77-year-old trainer said. "I'm going to have a target on my back when I get there."
The flashy chestnut colt with the working-class pedigree is the 5-2 morning-line choice to become the first California-bred Derby winner since Decidedly in 1962. Seven years earlier, Sherman was the 18-year-old exercise rider for Swaps, perhaps the greatest Cal-bred ever. Sherman watched the 1955 Derby from the backstretch and didn't join Swaps in the winner's circle. Fifty-nine years later, he could become the oldest trainer to hoist the coveted gold trophy. Charlie Whittingham was 76 in 1989, the year of Sunday Silence.
The affable Sherman appears to be enjoying himself, not freezing under the pressure. "To win the Kentucky Derby would put me right with all the people I respect," he said. "I'd have a good resume, that's for sure."
California Chrome brings a four-race winning streak into Saturday's 140th Derby against 18 opponents -- he's never faced more than 10 -- in his first appearance outside his home state. Even though he won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 5 1/4 lengths with Victor Espinoza, many handicappers will bet against him. Expect the other riders to try to make California Chrome as uncomfortable as possible, either by pinning him down on the inside or floating him wide into the first turn, where the Derby is often lost.
Rival trainers acknowledge that on paper, "Chromie" is the most logical winner. Todd Pletcher will send out the highly regarded pair of Danza and Intense Holiday and long shots Vinceremos and We Miss Artie. "California Chrome has been very, very impressive, and everything he's done recently has been awesome," Pletcher said. "Clearly, he's the horse to beat, but he's shipping to Kentucky and running at Churchill for the first time. Funny things can happen on this surface."
So many favorites whose past performances looked better than California Chrome's 6-for-10 record fell short on Derby Day. Among them are Hall of Famers Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Easy Goer, Holy Bull, Point Given and Nashua, second behind Sherman's beloved Swaps.
"Well, I've been in the game a long time," Sherman said. "I've always been a guy who thought if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I just want my horse to have a fair shake at it and have good racing luck."
That may sound like a reasonable request. Yet in a spectacle that often degenerates into bumper cars on horseback, it may be asking a lot.
Notes & quotes: The Derby's purse will be $2,202,800 . . . Trainer Wesley Ward announced that also-eligible Pablo Del Monte will not run. Because there won't be a full field of 20, Kentucky stewards decided every horse will move out one spot from the rail. For example, Vicar's in Trouble, who drew the inside, will break from post 2. Program and saddlecloth numbers won't change.