Victor Espinoza rides California Chrome to victory Saturday in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — How long does it take to go from exercise rider of a Kentucky Derby winner to trainer of a Derby winner? For Art Sherman, it took 59 years.
He came to Churchill Downs as an 18-year-old groom for Swaps in 1955, and didn't even make the winner's circle picture. On Saturday, Sherman returned to the winner's circle as a guest of honor, the oldest man ever to saddle a Kentucky Derby champion.
California Chrome is the colt that took this 77-year-old trainer on the improbable ride of a lifetime. The 5-2 favorite cruised to victory in the 140th Kentucky Derby, sitting just behind the leaders through the first quarter-mile before kicking into gear at the mile marker. With a powerful move in the stretch, he drew off by five lengths, then coasted to a length and three-quarters victory over longshot Commanding Curve and the Todd Pletcher-trained Danza.
For a moment, Sherman felt like a rider again as he watched jockey Victor Espinoza guide his colt in the stretch.
"When I saw him spurt free, I said, now let me take over for the last 70 yards," said Sherman, who rode for 23 years before taking out his training license in 1980.
On Thursday of Derby week, Sherman made the short walk to the Churchill Downs frontside to visit the grave of Swaps. Once there, he said a little prayer.
"I prayed that he would be another Swaps," Sherman said.
He was. In fact, Swaps' blood is in California Chrome's breeding on both his sire (Lucky Pulpit) and dam's (Love the Chase) side.
Swaps was a California-bred who came East and proved himself by winning the Derby. Though California Chrome was the prohibitive Derby favorite coming into the race off four consecutive victories, each by five lengths or more, there were some around the Churchill Downs' barns who still weren't believers.
They doubted his California breeding. Only three California-breds had won the race, and none since Decidedly in 1962. His home track of Los Alamitos, in Cypress, Calif., is better known for quarter-horses than thoroughbreds, and they doubted whether this chestnut colt had the class necessary to win the Derby. They wondered whether he could start cleanly inside of a 19-horse field and whether he could handle the traffic that comes in the Derby.
His answers were flawless. On a sun-splashed day before a crowd of 164,906, the second-largest in Kentucky Derby history, he broke cleanly, settled easily into stalking position, and ran a perfectly placed race until it was time to make his move. His winning time of 2:03.66 was the slowest over a fast track in the Derby since Cannonade in 1974, but he made believers of his rivals, drawing away in the stretch, then finishing easily with gas left in the tank while giving Espinoza his second Derby win.
"He run his eyeballs out. He's really a nice horse to train, and I appreciate the owners to give me a chance," Sherman said. "There's a lot of other trainers out there and they picked me."
Steve Coburn and Perry Martin started their racing operation, Dumb-Ass Partners, when a groom remarked of a mare they were about to buy, "anyone who decides to buy this horse is a dumbass."
The first horse to race wearing the "DAP" silks of the new partnership is California Chrome. The owners were offered $6 million by an undisclosed buyer for 51 percent interest in the colt, but were planning to take him to a new trainer and race him under their stables. Coburn and Martin turned them down.
"It wasn't tough for us to to say no," Coburn said. "Because we knew within our souls what kind of horse we had."
And what kind of horse is that? One that Coburn and Sherman touted as a Triple Crown threat.
"California Chrome is the rock star, and I'm his manager, and we're going all the way," Sherman said.
But now, more than just his own connections are signing his praises.
"I didn't think California Chrome had any chance in this race, and I was very, very wrong," said Dale Romans, trainer of eighth-place Medal Count. "I didn't think he fit the profile to win the Derby. I'm very impressed the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared, and the way he ran. He has a new fan."
Chances are, he has a bunch of them. California Chrome paid $7, 5.60, and 4.20 to win. Commanding Curve, who gave Louisville-based trainer Dallas Stewart a second-straight runner-up finish with a horse who qualified for the race only when another horse scratched, paid $31.80 and 15.40 to place. Third-place Danza paid $6.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and WDRB-TV in Louisville. Eric Crawford is a columnist for WDRB.