Trainer Art Sherman returns to Kentucky Derby 59 years later with race favorite California Chrome

On his first trip to the Kentucky Derby, Art Sherman slept with Swaps, the “California Comet.” That was 59 years ago.

This trip, he can barely sleep, thanks to California Chrome.

A jockey-turned-trainer, Sherman will saddle his first starter Saturday for the world’s most famous horse race. California Chrome, winner of four consecutive stakes, will be the likely favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby when entries are drawn Wednesday. A full field of 20 is expected.

“He’s the kind of horse you dream about,” said Sherman, who spent most of his career in Northern California. “Each time he goes out there, it kind of takes my breath away.”

California Chrome, the top-ranked horse in this Derby field, is co-owned and bred by Yuba City’s Perry and Denise Martin and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev.

Novice owners and breeders, the couples chose Sherman to train California Chrome because “he’s old school,” Steve Coburn said. “He’s a regular guy. He doesn’t have a huge barn. He can spend quality time with every horse. You can tell Chrome likes him, and he really loves this horse.”

Like the horse’s owners, Sherman has been overwhelmed by old friends reconnecting during the days leading up to the Derby.

“I’m having a lot of fun, believe it or not,” Sherman said. “I’ve been getting phone calls from all over the country, and it’s pretty exciting for me. I’ve had a lot of friends in this business and I enjoy hearing from them.”

Sherman made many friends in Sacramento, his “old stomping grounds,” he recalls. After he got his trainer’s license in 1980, he perfected his trade during summer fair meets. He won back-to-back Governor’s Handicaps with Lykatill Hil in 1996 and 1997 during the State Fair. That gelding ranks among Sherman’s all-time-best horses – before California Chrome.

Now, his star colt has made the 77-year-old trainer an overnight sensation. If California Chrome succeeds, Sherman would surpass Charlie Whittingham as the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby; at 76, Whittingham won the 1989 Derby with Sunday Silence.

“NBC, Sports Illustrated, New York Times, all over the country; it’s been wild,” he said of recent interviews.

“The most publicity I got (before this) was when I won a (1959) handicap in Maryland and (then-)Vice President Nixon gave me the trophy,” Sherman recalled of his jockey days. “We both went to Whittier High, although he was quite a bit older than me. (And the headlines read): ‘High school reunion in winner’s circle.’

“At the racetrack, you meet all these people you would never otherwise meet,” he added.

Until recently, Sherman was a fixture at Bay Area tracks. His wife, Faye, worked in the Bay Meadows gift shop for 30 years. Son Steve is a trainer at Golden Gate Fields. Son Alan serves as Art’s assistant at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County, where Sherman now stables and trains about 15 horses.

The whole family will be at the Derby, said Sherman, who will be a great-grandfather in June. “It’s going to be quite a family affair.”

The son of a barber, Sherman got into racing at the suggestion of a customer – he looked like a jockey – at his father’s shop. At 5-foot-2, Sherman still looks like he could ride. When he talks about a race, he habitually puts his hands into position as if holding reins.

“This horse makes me think about taking out my license again,” he said.

Sherman was a teenage exercise rider when he made his first visit to Louisville, Ky., and Churchill Downs. Legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker rode Swaps to victory in the 1955 Kentucky Derby, but it was Sherman who hung out with the mighty chestnut nicknamed the “California Comet” in the mornings. He rode with the horse in a train car to Kentucky, sleeping on a bed of straw next to Swaps for four nights.

“He was such a cool horse. He was just perfect to be around,” Sherman said of Swaps. “He reminds me so much of my horse, his demeanor; they’re people kind of horses.”

California Chrome prompts many other comparisons to Swaps; the 3-year-old colt is a direct descendent of the former Derby champion. Both look alike, shiny chestnuts with athletic builds. Both won the Santa Anita Derby. Both were born in California and carry their home-state pride.

“I’ve been asked that question so many times,” Sherman said of the comparison. “It is really difficult for me. I hate taking anything away from Swaps; he had six world records.”

Yet, there is so much about California Chrome and his road to the Derby that reminds Sherman of Swaps.

“I really think this horse will run all day long,” he said of California Chrome. “He’s got that kind of a stride to him. There’s no wasted motion. I don’t think a mile and a quarter (the Derby distance) will be a bit of trouble for him.”

Sherman recently bought a home at a retirement community in Rancho Bernardo in north San Diego County. But he has no thoughts of retiring.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “This is the only thing I know. It’s a great life. I can’t wait to get up in the morning – especially when you have one like California Chrome.”

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