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Features - LIFESTYLE

California Chrome rolls to victory in the Preakness Stakes on May 17 at Pimlico Race Course. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)

Art Sherman was 18 years old when he accompanied Swaps in a boxcar from California to Louisville to win the 1955 Kentucky Derby. He returned to Churchill Downs at age 77 and became the oldest trainer to smell the roses when California Chrome prevailed by 1 ¾ lengths on May 3.

Sherman agreed to take followers of America’s Best Racing along for the ride as his immensely popular California-bred looked to take the next step toward a Triple Crown bid in the Preakness Stakes, which he won handily on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Below are the seven installments of his diary, as told to Tom Pedulla, through the first two jewels of the Triple Crown:

THE COUGH HEARD ’ROUND THE WORLD, MAY 16

Sherman Diary Hero

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

BALTIMORE – I never imagined a cough could turn into such a big deal. But that is what happened after California Chrome was overheard coughing when he returned from his morning gallop at Pimlico on Thursday.

Word quickly spread and we moved just as quickly to make sure the horse was fine and to assure everyone of that. He has a recurrence of a small blister that we are treating with a throat wash. In human terms, he has a minor throat irritation. He had this before the Derby and, obviously, it did not affect him at all when he rocked at Churchill Downs. I have never been one to look for excuses. I am not about to start now.


CHROME IN HIS STALL AT PIMLICO AFTER COUGH-GATE

Chrome Inside Diary

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

For those handicapping this race, do not be discouraged by the slow Derby time of 2:03 3/5. I have never been one to get caught up in the time of a race. Track conditions vary and I think Churchill got slower as the afternoon went on.

Remember, too, that Victor Espinoza eased Chrome once it was obvious the race was decided. He kind of let him prick his ears and start getting disinterested. He got to looking around with all of the crowd and everything.

Chrome is smart enough to know when his job is done; it was over when he opened five lengths on them at the sixteenth pole. Once that happened, I knew Victor had plenty of horse left and there was no chance of catching him. In fact, I thought I could have ridden him those last 70 yards – and I haven’t ridden in a long time.

Chrome puts his opponents away the way few horses can. When their jockeys are riding for all they are worth and they are responding with every ounce of energy only to see Chrome draw away with a tremendous burst … that cuts the heart right out of them.

The start of the Preakness will be critical for us. Chrome has a tendency to rock in the gate. If he should do that, it could cause us to lose a length or two immediately and Victor would have to hustle him into the race, something I would rather avoid. If he breaks cleanly, Victor can let the speed outside of us go and find a pocket where he is able to run freely and cleanly.

Chrome is so push-button that Victor will be able to make whatever adjustments are necessary as the pace dictates. I am anticipating strong fractions. That would be fine with us. It should allow my horse to be in an ideal striking position entering the final turn.

I am not guaranteeing anything. It is horse racing. I will say this: if Chrome runs his race, no one will beat him.

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HOLDING MY BREATH, MAY 15

Sherman Hero

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

BALTIMORE - I am finding that overseeing a Kentucky Derby winner is kind of a hold-your-breath experience. I held my breath before the draw Wednesday night and was greatly relieved when California Chrome drew post three. I held my breath when he went out to familiarize himself with the starting gate at Pimlico. They assured me everything went well. So far, so good.

The draw went the way I wanted it to. The horses who figure to show early speed are all outside of us. And there is a lot of speed in this race. Bayern should be on the engine from post five. I know Bob Baffert well since we both train in California; that is the way he likes his horses to run. Social Inclusion, from the eighth slot, is another who will want to get an early jump. Pablo Del Monte, just to the outside of Social Inclusion, also has plenty of speed.

If they all step on the gas the way I expect them to, that should allow Victor Espinoza to settle in behind them with Chrome, get him in a good rhythm, and keep him in the clear until it is time for the serious running to begin.

CALIFORNIA CHROME SLIDESHOW

My biggest focus since the Derby has been on keeping Chrome fit, healthy and happy. I kept him at Churchill Downs as long as I did because he had grown so comfortable there, but I was glad we were able to arrange the travel so that he arrived at Pimlico on Monday. Because this horse is so curious about his surroundings – more so than most horses I have had – I knew it was very important to familiarize him with his new setting.

Wednesday was the first morning I watched him gallop here. It was typical Chrome. He looked around quite a bit in the early going, which is nothing new for him. As I said, he is a very inquisitive horse. But then he got down to business the second time around. He took hold of the bit and was pulling pretty good on Willie Delgado, his exercise rider and a very important member of our team.

As I said before, the two-week turnaround to the Preakness makes me uncomfortable. It is not something I would choose to do, but there is no choice here. It takes a special kind of horse to handle the demands of the Triple Crown. I can only hope I have that kind of horse.

My staff and I are doing everything we can to help him through it with a light training regimen. One of the keys is maintaining his weight. He put on more than 35 pounds since the Derby, which is great. We also are doing everything we can to protect him from temperature changes. California is not Kentucky. Kentucky is not Baltimore. I find myself checking his temperature two or three times a day, just to make sure he doesn’t catch a cold.

People ask if my wife and I went on a spending spree after all Chrome has already done for us, winning a $1-million race in the Santa Anita Derby and then the lion’s share of a $2 million purse in Kentucky as part of his five-race winning streak. Well, about all I can think of is that my wife treated me to a new suit before the Kentucky Derby. I will stick with that for the Preakness.

It is my lucky suit.

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THE TRIPLE CROWN FORMAT, MAY 12

Chrome Derby Hero

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

BALTIMORE - No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the long drought is causing many people in the industry to debate whether three races at three different tracks at three different distances in a five-week span is asking too much.

There are, after all, only 11 Triple Crown champions, which is not all that many when you consider how many great horses have come along. As much as I appreciate many of the traditions of racing and know how important the try for the historic sweep is to the sport, I think the format needs a slight change.

As someone who made a wonderful living riding horses before I turned to training them, on any issue I will come down on the side of the horse. I would love to see three weeks between the Derby and Preakness instead of two. I just think it would be fairer to the horse. From my experience, it takes a Thoroughbred approximately 11 days to recover from any race, to get him back to where his blood levels should be and for the bounce to return to their step.

The Derby, at a mile-and-a-quarter and with a big field every year of 19 or 20 horses, is more taxing than most races. I do not think one more week would hurt the tradition. I am certain it would do the Derby winner a world of good as he takes on mostly fresh horses in the Preakness.

Even if the Triple Crown required three races in six weeks, I could not think of a greater accomplishment in any sport when the classic distances and the different tracks and the demanding travel are factored in.

Remember, too, that many 3-year-olds are still coming into their own at this early stage of their careers. It sure would be nice to keep more of them not only competing but thriving as the Breeders’ Cup comes around in the fall. Every sport needs stars who pass the test of time -- and ours desperately needs that.

None of this is to say that Chrome came out of the Derby badly or is showing wear and tear. The opposite is true. But when I am asked my opinion of the Triple Crown, I am happy to put it out there.

As for Chrome, he is as fit as can be. He will not require much training at Pimlico for the Preakness. The key is to go as easy as I can on him and still have him primed for another huge effort.

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CHROME THRIVING, MAY 2

Chrome Friday Diary Hero

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

LOUISVILLE - In many ways, Derby week has taken me on an emotional ride back in time. It seems like only yesterday that I was an 18-year-old accompanying Swaps on a four-day train ride from California to Louisville. It was me, the horse and the groom. As the rail car lurched about, I had plenty of time to daydream about what Churchill Downs would be like, about how Swaps might fare against favored Nashua.

I will never forget my jubilation when Swaps proved his quality to the world by turning back Nashua in 1955. I call California Chrome “my Swaps” because he is the best horse by far to enter my barn as a trainer. He has left me at a loss for words with the way he dominated his last four races. He gave me my first victory in a $1 million race when he shook loose by 5 ¼ lengths in the Santa Anita Derby, a race that means so much to me when I think of the great horses that won it.

But to place California Chrome on the same playing field as Swaps this early in his career, I am not about to do that. That would be unfair to Swaps. His name may not mean a great deal to young fans. Perhaps it is hard for them to appreciate him fully. I do.

SHERMAN ALL SMILES AFTER A CALIFORNIA CHROME WIN

Sherman Hero Eclipse

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

My wife, Faye, and I paid a memorable visit to Swaps’ grave on Thursday. It sits behind the Kentucky Derby Museum beside those of fellow Derby champions Brokers Tip (1933), Carry Back (1961) Dust Commander (1970) and Sunny’s Halo (1983). There was a rose placed on each grave, thanks to a group known as “The Friends of Barbaro.”

I am doing everything I can to enjoy this week with my family, to appreciate everything going on around me. I am making sure to smell the roses. I am at ease because I know I have done everything possible to have Chrome ready for the day that comes around once in a horse’s lifetime. He is as fit as he can be. He is thriving physically. He is getting over the track well.

Mentally, he is taking everything in, as I am, curious about his new surroundings but not in any way unsettled by them. When crowds of fans, photographers and television cameras gather around, he looks up as if to say, “Go ahead, take my picture.”

BATH TIME FOR CALIFORNIA CHROME

Chrome Bath Inside

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Chrome has made 10 starts. Some people may look at that as a lot of racing. I look at it as a lot of seasoning. He drew something from every one of those starts. I expect that experience to be invaluable in what will be a 19-horse Derby field. This can be a roughly run race. But he has been bounced around before and learned to overcome that and fight for his position.

I will not give Victor Espinoza many instructions, if any. As a former jockey, I know that you let good riders and good horses perform. Smart trainers stay out of the way. Victor knows the type of speed he is sitting on. I am confident he will use it to secure a good tactical position.

As easy as the victories have been, Victor tells me he has never gotten to the bottom of Chrome. If he does, the result could be breathtaking.

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ANOTHER HURDLE CLEARED, MAY 1

LOUISVILLE - Well, I feel as though we cleared another hurdle when we were assigned post five in the draw at Churchill Downs on Wednesday. Our jockey, Victor Espinoza, was very happy with it. He has one Derby victory, and that came when War Emblem broke sharply from the fifth position, took command early, and never looked back for the entire mile and a quarter in 2002.

I am not saying it will play out that way again. There are so many horses in this field capable of setting a hot pace. But that post will only add to Victor’s confidence, and it gives him plenty of options as long as we enjoy a clean break.

California Chrome has a ton of gas. He will allow you to do pretty much anything you want with him. If Victor must tap into that early speed to secure good position entering the first turn, then that will be fine.

Fans here are really getting a kick out of my horse. I always say he is a “rock star” in California. I think we can add the Bluegrass State to that, and it may not be long before the rest of the nation falls into line. He has a wonderful curiosity and we are indulging that to make sure he acclimates well to Churchill Downs. Whenever he wants to stop on his way to the track to check out his surroundings, Willy Delgado, his exercise rider, allows him the time he needs.

Churchill Downs sets aside time at 8:30 a.m. each day to allow Oaks and Derby horses to train on a relatively uncrowded track. We have been getting our work done a couple of hours before that only because Chrome is accustomed to early-morning exercise. Horses are creatures of habit. I am trying to stick as close as possible to what worked so well at home.

Because I spent a good number of years as a jockey and now as a trainer, fans ask me which job carries more pressure when dealing with a high-caliber horse. I think trainers are under far more pressure than jockeys.

SHERMAN SWARMED BY MEDIA AT CHURCHILL

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Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

When I was riding, I did everything I could to prepare for each race. I gave it everything I had, mentally and physically, from the time the starting gate snapped open until we flashed across the finish line. If we lost, I would give the trainer my thoughts on why we fell short. If there was an issue I could identify, I made sure to do that. After that, I moved on to the next mount while the trainer may be left with a significant problem or problems to solve.

I joked with Victor that I might take out my riding license again because Chrome has been making it so easy for him, sweeping their four races together by a combined 24 ¼ lengths. I have never had a horse win that many races so convincingly.

When I was 18, I felt Swaps was my once-in-a-lifetime horse. With California Chrome, I feel that I caught lightning in a bottle twice.

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MEMORIES THAT LAST A LIFETIME, APRIL 29

SADerby Inside

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

LOUISVILLE - The first day at a new track after a horse has traveled is always a concern for a trainer. Did the shipping take anything out of him? Is he uptight in his new surroundings? How is he handling the climate change? Above all, in the case of California Chrome, how does he grip a surface very different from the dry, fast track he knows so well as his Los Alamitos base in California?

I arrived at Barn 20 at Churchill Downs early Tuesday morning with all of these questions to be answered. I was relieved to find California Chrome sleeping soundly, looking as comfortable as could be. When reporters, photographers and television crews followed him to the track and back, he did not turn a hair. Believe me, he’s a rock star in California, so he’s gotten used to crowds. I kind of think he enjoys being the center of attention.

CALIFORNIA CHROME TRAINING AT LOS ALAMITOS

Cali Chrome Los Alamitos Inside

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

When it was time to go to work with his morning gallop, William Delgado, the exercise rider who does such a fantastic job for us, said it was the best he felt to him in a long time. He said he did feel a bit different, but in a good way. He felt the deeper track than the ones they went over before brought out even more aggressiveness in the colt in the way he grabbed the dirt.

Coming back here brings a flood of memories. Reporters constantly ask me what it was like to be in a rail car for four days when Swaps traveled from the West Coast to Louisville for the 1955 Derby. You might think it was an awful experience. It was not. Heck, I was 18 years old and as excited as I could be. Me and the groom were not just riding with any horse. We were with Swaps, a kind, gentle horse who knew us well and treated us as friends. He slept in one corner of the car. We had our sleeping bags and bedded down on the opposite side as the miles and hours clickety-clacked away, bringing us ever closer to our date with destiny.

The big question in that day was how Swaps could ever beat the favored Nashua and masterful jockey Eddie Arcaro. Well, you know what happened. He broke sharply for Bill Shoemaker and set the pace. “Shoe” was just waiting for the challenge that was sure to come, waiting to see how his mount would respond to that threat.

Nashua loped along during the backstretch run, perfectly placed, before Arcaro signaled to him that it was time. The roar of the crowd was deafening as Nashua launched his rally, drawing ever closer to his rival with every powerful stride. “Shoe” knew what that din meant as hard-charging Nashua reached the right flank of Swaps. Shoe asked the horse for everything he could possibly give. Swaps dug down and found the extra gear only the immortals have, pulling away by 1 ½ breathtaking lengths.

I have high hopes for California Chrome on Saturday. Yet, in one sense, I feel I cannot lose. My beloved Swaps already provided me with a Derby memory to last a lifetime.

1955 DERBY WINNER SWAPS

Swaps Hero

Photo by Horsephotos.com 

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DERBY DAY CAN'T COME SOON ENOUGH, APRIL 28

LOUISVILLE - I am often asked how California Chrome compares to Swaps. I feel it is too early to answer that question just yet. I cannot tell you how much respect I have for Swaps. I always want to make sure he is held in that high regard. When Bill Shoemaker, one of the finest jockeys in history, tells you Swaps was one of the best he ever rode … that tells you plenty.

California Chrome still has so much to do before he can be in the conversation with Swaps, starting Saturday at Churchill Downs. I will compare the horses in one respect: they are both what I call people horses. They want to be around people. They enjoy attention. They have no bad habits.

SWAPS RETURNS TO THE WINNER'S CIRCLE AFTER A RACE

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I was 18 years old when a groom and I accompanied Swaps on the ride of a lifetime. The three of us were in one car for four days. Swaps was so neat to be around that it was a pleasure to be in his company. It is the same with California Chrome. Neither has a mean bone in his body. They are as gentle as can be until its show time. Then they are the gutsiest horses you can find.

The demeanor of a horse is so important as we get ready for the big day. How will California Chrome react to his first plane ride, a temperature change and a very different setting? I have no worries.

How will he handle the big crowds that will follow his every move at Churchill Downs and the much bigger crowd, more than 100,000 strong, that will roar when he comes into view on Derby day? Again, no worries.

I am that sure of this horse’s makeup. He has won at three different racetracks already. Once he sees that Churchill Downs is just another racetrack – but with a lot more activity around – I am sure he will be fine. Other horses may become a bit unglued by all of the fanfare on race day. Some may be wound so tightly that they will lose the race before it even begins. No one knows a horse like this trainer, and I know mine won’t.

It also is a relief to me and my staff to know that most of the work is done to get California Chrome ready for the biggest race of his life. He breezed four furlongs in 48 1/5 seconds at his home base of Los Alamitos [Race Course], which was just what I wanted. He made it look effortless. He is as sharp as I can possibly have him and he bounced out of the work just fine. Everything is tight. He is as full of himself as he can be.

Other than allowing him to stretch his legs each morning and familiarize himself with the Churchill Downs surface, all that remains is to familiarize him with the starting gate and to school him in the paddock. Otherwise, I am really satisfied with the way he is coming into the Derby.

Now, it is a matter of counting down the days to a race that cannot come soon enough.

REGULAR RIDER VICTOR ESPINOZA
BRINGS CALIFORNIA CHROME BACK TO THE WINNER'S CIRCLE

Chrome Inside

Benoit & Associates

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