LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Nearly a half century of Aprils have passed since 18-year-old stablehand Art Sherman shared a sleeping bag with a groom on a 4-day cross-country train ride destined for Churchill Downs. They were accompanying the best race horse ever born in California to his date with Kentucky Derby glory.
The legendary Swaps, who would eventually set six world records, upset the heavily favored Nashua in the 1955 Derby. A once-in-a-lifetime horse, Swaps would eventually get a statue at Hollywood Park and a permanent place in the heart of that teenager who would become his exercise rider.
Sherman, now 77, had a seat on an airplane Monday when he flew from California to Phoenix to Louisville. His horse of a lifetime, Derby favorite California Chrome, born in California just like Swaps, flew east on another plane, arriving 4 hours after Sherman left, his date with potential Derby glory just days away.
Sherman was at Los Alamitos very early Monday morning when California Chrome left his stall for the ride to the airport. While he was waiting to change planes in Phoenix and having breakfast with his wife Faye, Sherman got word that California Chrome had arrived safely in Kentucky.
The trainer arrived a few hours later. His day finally ended at 10:30 p.m. after leaving Jeff Ruby's restaurant.
"I've got to rate myself," Sherman said. "I'm not as young as I used to be."
Standing outside Barn 20 yesterday morning, his horse safely in his stall on the other (quiet) side of the barn, a half hour before a 9 a.m. news conference, Sherman was trying to remember what the Churchill stable area looked like in 1955.
Sherman, the exercise rider turned jockey turned trainer, may be listed as first-time Derby trainer, but the man, who was born in Brooklyn and has lived practically his whole life on the West Coast, has seen just about everything in the sport. What he never expected to see was a horse like California Chrome in his barn.
"I've been in the game a long time," Sherman understated. "I've always been one of them kind of guys that if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
California Chrome was a nice 2-year-old last year, but there was no hint of greatness until 3 days before Christmas, the final day in the history of venerable Hollywood Park. The King Glorious Stakes was the penultimate race in the track's history, its final stakes race. California Chrome won by more than 6 lengths. Then, he won the Cal Cup Derby by 5, the San Felipe by 7 and the Santa Anita Derby by 5.
"He just developed into a runner and I'm kind of just sitting back and each time he goes out there it kind of takes my breath away, because how many lengths that he won, the last four races he's won by over 25 lengths, and I've never had a horse that did that before," Sherman said.
CC has been perfect since being united with jockey Victor Espinonza, a Derby winner in 2002 on War Emblem. The colt has also been fast and relaxed and positively brilliant. The race at Hollywood Park started this ride that has led to Kentucky.
"Well, I was kind of awed by his performance," Sherman said.
That it came at the track where he started riding as a kid only added to a magical, bittersweet day at a track with so much history, a track that Swaps owned during a career that saw him win 19 of 25 races and set all those records.
Swaps, who was ridden by Bill Shoemaker, went back to California after his Derby. Nashua won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. After battling sore feet, Swaps was upset by the great Nashua (22-for-30 lifetime) in a match race that summer in Chicago.
That train ride, that Derby and all those records linger. Sherman has not forgotten many details.
"It was two of us in a sleeping bag and Swaps is on one side," Sherman said. "He was such a cool horse that I never ever thought about him ever trying to roll over or do anything. He was just one of those horses that knew you and he was a kick to be around. He didn't have a mean part in his body. He was just perfect to be around. He reminds me so much of my horse, his demeanor, they're people kind of horses."
If the owners were realistic, California Chrome would not be alive. His dam, Love the Chase, a Maryland bred daughter of the excellent Maryland sire Not For Love, ran six times at Golden Gate Fields with one win in an $8,000 maiden claimer. For reasons not entirely clear, owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin decided to breed her to $2,500 sire Lucky Pulpit.
They got the Derby favorite, a colt that has won $1.1 million, is already worth millions more and will be worth more multiples of millions if he wins on Saturday.
So, a mile-and-a-quarter against 19 horses?
"Well, I've seen as the distance gets longer his winning gets longer," Coburn said before the Santa Anita Derby. "He's won by five and a quarter, he's won by six and a half, he's won by seven and a quarter, so maybe at a mile and a quarter he may win by 12 or 15, who knows?"
Really, who does know? It is horse racing where anything is possible, even a Derby favorite who trains at Los Alamitos, the quarter horse track in Orange County and is trained by a man who went to Whittier High, the same alma mater as Richard Nixon, whom he just happened to meet in the Bowie winner's circle when he rode the winner of the 1958 Barbara Fritchie and Nixon was vice president.
California Chrome was born on Feb. 18, the same birthday as Coburn's sister, who died of cancer at just 36. Coburn pointed out that it has been 36 years since we've had a Triple Crown winner and noted that his birthday is May 3, Saturday, Derby Day.
All the coincidences are quite interesting. Most interesting is that California Chrome is a really fast horse trained by a man who all those Aprils ago rode a train to glory alongside one of the fastest horses that ever lived. And it might be happening all over again.