California Chrome makes trainer oldest-ever Derby winner

Posted: May 06, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Art Sherman watched the 1955 Kentucky Derby from the stable area, catching just a glimpse of the field as it went by his perch. He watched the 2014 Kentucky Derby from the stands, one of 164,906 at Churchill Downs Saturday, seeing every bit of America's race.

An 18-year-old stable hand then, Sherman was just happy to be on the racetrack and near the California legend, Swaps. When the horse he accompanied on a 4-day rail trip east actually won the Derby, that teenager surely could never have imagined another racing moment remotely like it again.

After a lifetime on the racetrack and exactly 59 first Saturdays in May later, Sherman, 77, became the oldest trainer to win the Derby. Born in California just like Swaps, California Chrome was the winner in Sherman's mind at the eighth pole, the first time past.

The field had gone just 220 yards when Sherman saw the horse he calls his Swaps sitting third, just off the lead. All he wanted was for "Chrome" to get clear running. The colt, brilliantly ridden by Victor Espinoza, ran himself into early position.

"When I saw him start to move out, I said, 'They won't beat him today,' " Sherman said 2 hours after the race at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Just like in his previous four races, CC, the 5-2 favorite, blew the race apart at the top of the stretch, opening up 5 lengths at the eighth pole, winning by a comfortable 1 3/4 lengths at the wire. Commanding Curve, 37-1 and owned by a partnership managed by Terry Finley - who went to Truman High and developed his love of the sport by going to Liberty Bell, Keystone/Philadelphia Park and Garden State Park back in the day - came flying from second to last early to be second at the finish line.

Thursday night at a party for the partners in the downtown Bluegrass Brewing Company, across from the Brown Hotel, Finley swore everybody to secrecy and then announced that "we are going to win the Kentucky Derby."

Well, their horse beat 17 other Derby horses. Commanding Curve just could not catch the horse nobody has been able to beat since Nov. 1.

Finley was watching his horse and thinking about the rally Orb made to win the Derby last year. Orb, however, sat behind a brutal pace that cooked the early speed and set it up for the closers. Commanding Curve was not aided by a scorching pace but still came running, passing 10 horses in the final quarter-mile. It was a rally that would have won a lot of Derbies, just not this one against this horse.

"It was an incredible feeling," Finley said. "It's the one race of the year that the world pays attention to, and I can attest to it by my emails and my text messages. It was a wonderful day to have the family there, all my buddies that have been around for a long, long time. In that respect, it was a very moving day."

After attending a moderate pace, California Chrome finished the mile and a quarter in 2:03.66, slow time on a track that was not that slow. It was not so much how fast the colt ran, but how he ran fast. It was again relaxed, smooth and almost effortless. CC has now won those five consecutive races by a combined 26 lengths.

So, is this the one after 36 years without a Triple Crown? Is CC finally the next Triple Crown winner?

Co-owner Steve Coburn has been saying that for weeks. He is a dreamer. Sherman, who has seen everything and done everything at the track, is a realist.

"I just hope everything works out," Sherman said. "I'm a day by day. Some people have a lot of dreams. I have to live with the horse."

Sherman has never been to Pimlico. In his jockey days, he won a stakes race at old Bowie, a half-hour south of Baltimore, which is the home of the Preakness.

"I feel like I got a chance to win the Triple Crown, I really do," Sherman said.

There do not appear to be a lot of Derby also-ran takers for the Preakness. The brilliant filly Untapable, dominating winner of Friday's Kentucky Oaks, will not try the boys in the Preakness. CC will be an overwhelming favorite on May 17.

Espinoza won two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 2002 with War Emblem, a very nice horse. This Derby winner is much more versatile.

"For this guy, I have a lot of options," Espinoza said. "He can go either way. He can go front, behind, doesn't matter."

War Emblem was a one-way horse, a stone frontrunner. And when he missed the break in the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown dream was over.

Espinoza almost put CC in front, but then decided to wait. He was worried for a few seconds that they would be surrounded.

"I didn't want him trapped," the rider said. "I wanted him to run his race."

Once in the clear, Chrome ran the race he was always going to run, the race that would win the Derby.

The great California trainer Charlie Whittingham, then 76, was the oldest to win the Derby when Sunday Silence upset Easy Goer a quarter-century ago. Now, Sherman has beaten the record of the trainer who set all the standards in California. And he did it with another horse born in California, just like Swaps.

"It's such a different ballgame now, you know what I mean, with all the years that you put in," Sherman said.

They were not betting $186 million on the Derby Day card back then, $129 million on the Derby itself. And Swaps did not have a $12 million, 170-foot wide, 90-foot long, 80-foot, above-ground video board looming over his stall in Barn 20.

It was when California Chrome ran by that board, a few seconds before bending into the far turn, that everybody knew what Sherman had known in the first few seconds of the race. The horse by a $2,500 sire out of an $8,000 mare was running like he was worth even more than all those millions the owners had reportedly turned down.

"Yes, we were offered $6 million for 51 percent of this horse's controlling interest," Coburn said. "Would mean they were running under their colors, gone to a new trainer, we would have been out in the background . . . It wasn't tough for us to say no. We knew within our souls what kind of horse we had because we've seen him grow up. We've seen him achieve these things. We've seen him get hit across the nose and still lose the race by only 2 lengths. We've seen him jump the gate and still lose the race by only 2 lengths. He had all that heart."

And all that talent.

Swaps is buried at the Derby Museum. Sherman and his wife Faye visited the grave Derby Week.

"I went and said a little prayer," Sherman said. "I thought he was a super horse, Swaps. Six world records at one time. I said, 'Hey, let me have half your talent, put it into Chrome, I'll be the happiest guy in the world.' "

Chrome might not be Swaps, but he is awfully good, incredibly accomplished and like Swaps, this California-bred horse is a Derby winner.

"I'm so thankful that I'm here," Sherman said. "I don't think I change much anymore. I have a lot of friends on the racetrack, been around a long time. I'm just the same old Art Sherman, you know except I won the Kentucky Derby."


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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