Art Sherman and California Chrome is the best emerging sports story of 2014. It is poetic justice that their successful unveiling has blossomed out of the ashes of Hollywood Park Racetrack's sad and undeserved death on Dec. 22, 2013.
Sherman trains thoroughbred racehorses and California Chrome is his lead horse. The chemistry between the 77-year old veteran trainer and the three-year old colt is undeniable. So far their relationship has been flushed in spades. What started out with a handshake has become a grassroots love affair between the California-bred phenom and his rapidly expanding slew of admirers.
On April 5, 2014, blue skies, passing clouds and ideal conditions accented a pristine Saturday afternoon at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, as jockey Victor Espinoza rode California Chrome to another compelling win by rendering the field irrelevant down the stretch in the 77th Running of the Santa Anita Derby.
They not only grabbed the race by the throat coming out of the last turn with an unbridled explosion but the dynamic duo also swept away a yearning crowd of 35,241 racing fans screaming in elation as they cruised across the finish line 5 1/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Hoppertunity, ridden by Mike Smith and trained by the renowned Bob Baffert.
Sherman was impressed: "All I can tell you right now is he's my Swaps. Swaps, you can't fault his record, six world records. It was a pleasure being around those people. It taught me a lot and I'm very humbled to have a horse like this."
Sherman was an exercise rider for Swaps, the California-bred 1955 Horse of the Year who not won the Kentucky Derby but coincidentally claimed the Santa Anita Derby the same year. He added: "When I saw him open up I said to myself: "Wow. Look at him." That was the only thing I could think of."
The impressive time of 1:47.52 over the 1 1/8 mile feature race was worth 100 Kentucky Derby points which gives California Chrome a 30-point lead in the qualifying for this year's race at Churchill Downs. The classic knockout punch reverberated throughout the racing industry, sobering up those who questioned the pedigree of the chestnut colored sensation. California Chrome will likely enter as the favorite to capture the Kentucky Derby crown on May 3 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Espinoza offered: "He broke out a step slow. I just wanted to bounce out of there as quick as possible. I didn't think the outside horse was going to do the same thing that I was trying to do. The most I wanted was a clean run when he hit the first turn and after that it was easy for me."
The implausible storyline unfolded on a late December Sunday afternoon at Hollywood Park in the track's last stakes race, the $200,000 King Glorious Stakes, on the track's last racing day ever. It was glorious indeed as Espinoza kept California Chrome on the outside and completely dismantled the field by 6 1/4 lengths.
Sherman along with his son Alan kept training their California Chrome and the rest of their stable during the early morning hours throughout the month of January at Hollywood Park until the very end when they finally packed up the saddles and moved a few miles south to Los Alamitos Race Course, traditionally a quarter horse enclave that recently renovated its tracks and facilities to accommodate a number of thoroughbred teams abandoned by Hollywood Park's closure.
California Chrome began his assault on the inviting turf at Santa Anita on January 25 for California Cup Derby by erasing the competition by 5 1/2 lengths. Two weeks later he was even more impressive at the same track during the San Felipe Stakes on March 8th with a 7 1/4 length-winning jaunt. The horse now had the industry's full-fledged attention but still tinged with guarded curiosity.
The age-old gesture that started it all was between California Chrome's owners: Steve Coburn and Perry Martin. Coburn was firm: "This partnership is based on a handshake. It's not Steven and Perry. It's Steven or Perry. Or Perry or Steven. We've become great friends and we'll continue to be great friends.
"When Perry told me they're sending the horse to Art I said: "We're sending him a Derby winner." What we like about Art is he's old school and he's a regular guy. He doesn't have a huge barn and he's able to spend quality time with every horse that he has in his barn. And that's where Junior, that's his (Chrome's) nickname, that's where California Chrome gets his care because everybody loves this horse. Everybody loves this horse."
And that love includes substantial offers from outside parties for control of three-year old. Martin was straight-forward when asked about a $6,000,000.00 bid for 51% ownership of the horse: "It was about three weeks ago. I got a phone call from an agent and basically they wanted, for the money, to be in control the horse. So I asked: "That might be fine but what about if we want to keep the trainer, if we want to run in our colors?" They said: "No. The owner would have control of the horse." And then it was very simple. We said: "No. Thank you."
Alan Sherman was further swayed by California Chrome's performance: "When he came out of the San Felipe he was a little tired for a few days but he bounced right back. He's been training like a bomb the last three weeks. My expectations were high but this kind of exceeded them. It's so special to be able to share it (the moment) with everybody. It's just amazing."
Espinoza, who in 2002 rode War Emblem to victory in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness for Baffert, appreciates his current company: "He's an amazing horse. He's so light on his feet and just makes things so easy and makes my job more easy during the race. I ride him with more confidence."
"I'm just so happy for Art. I've known him since I was a bug boy. He put me in a lot of winners in San Francisco when I was an apprentice. Life is just going around and around after so many years and now I'm riding the best horse that he has right now."
The next stop will be Churchill Downs. Sherman revealed: "I'm going to let him stay in California. The weather gets rough back there. I've been there with the rain. I love Kentucky. I rode there for quite a few years on and off. I'm just going to go there the last week. I might just keep him in sunny California and get that good old tan on him."