Art Sherman, 77, who was last part of the Kentucky Derby scene when he rode in a rail car with Swaps from the West Coast to Louisville to win the 1955 Derby, agreed to take followers of America’s Best Racing along for the ride as he prepared potential superstar California Chrome for the Run for the Roses. The California-bred dominated his previous four starts by a combined margin of 24 ¼ lengths and then won the Kentucky Derby on May 3 to make Sherman the oldest Derby-winning trainer in the race's 140-year history.
Below are the four installments of his diary, as told to Tom Pedulla:
CHROME THRIVING, MAY 2
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
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
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.
CALIFORNIA CHROME SLIDESHOW
ANOTHER HURDLE CLEARED, MAY 1
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
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.
MEMORIES THAT LAST A LIFETIME, APRIL 29
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
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
Photo by Horsephotos.com
DERBY DAY CAN'T COME SOON ENOUGH, APRIL 28
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
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
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