07/25/2006 11:00PM

Carthage ready to storm Del Mar

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Trainer Art Sherman with Carthage at Del Mar Race Track in Del Mar, California.

DEL MAR, Calif. - In 146 B.C., the Romans conquered the seaside city-state of Carthage, and burned it to the ground. More than 2,100 years later, a horse named seems determined to conquer the West Coast sprint division.

Carthage has won five straight races, including a victory against last year's sprint champion, Lost in the Fog, and will go for the biggest prize of his career on Saturday at Del Mar in the Grade 1, $300,000 Bing Crosby Handicap. And to think that only two years ago, at this very track, Carthage had disappointed his owner and trainer to such a degree that he was risked for a $32,000 claiming price.

Trainer Art Sherman claimed Carthage that day for a partnership including himself, but his hopes were modest.

"He still had all his allowance conditions," Sherman said. "I thought he'd fit well up north."

Sherman is based in northern California, and that is where Carthage headed. Over the past 23 months, Carthage has raced exclusively at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, where he steadily ascended the class ladder. After his most recent victory, in the Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint Handicap on June 4, Sherman decided Carthage deserved a chance against the best at Del Mar.

Sherman, who lives in San Mateo, Calif., near Bay Meadows, brought 25 horses here this summer, leaving another 60 up north. Like the Civil War general who shared the trainer's last name and cut a swath through the South, Sherman is trying to pillage Del Mar's two major stakes races for sprinters this summer. Siren Lure, who won the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park on July 2, is awaiting the Grade 2, $300,000 Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap here on Aug. 20.

"The last couple of years have been pretty lucrative," Sherman said at his Del Mar barn. "I've probably got the best stable I've ever had. I've been getting better and better horses."

Sherman, 69, is a former jockey who turned to training 30 years ago. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 7. He grew up in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles and graduated from Marshall High School. His father was a barber, and conversation at the barbershop in the early 1950's frequently turned to racing.

"All the gamblers would come in," Sherman said.

One of the patrons suggested to little Art Sherman that he try and become a jockey, being as he was naturally small.

Sherman initially got a job with, and was under contract to, the noted Western owner Rex Ellsworth. His starting salary was $75 a month. For Ellsworth and trainer Mesh Tenney, Sherman worked the great racehorse Swaps.

"He was a super horse," Sherman said. "A great, classy horse, a freak of nature."

He competed as a jockey for 20 years, but always was in the shadow of the likes of Bill Shoemaker and Don Pierce. As a trainer, Sherman has had great success in recent years, with 2005 his best yet. Last year, Sherman won 193 races, seventh best in North America, and his barn earned $3,368,732, a personal best. His two sons are his top assistants, with Alan - also a former jockey - at Del Mar this summer, and Steve remaining at Bay Meadows.

Carthage, 6, is gray with a large splotch of pink around his left nostril. He is a son of Smoke Glacken who was originally purchased as a yearling by owner B. Wayne Hughes. Carthage won just once - in an $80,000 maiden claiming race - in his first seven starts through the summer of 2004.

"He needed to be gelded," Ron Ellis, who was Carthage's original trainer, recalled. "He was really studdish. I think one of his testicles was bothering him. Wayne didn't want to geld him.

"I bought him for some other clients," Ellis said, referring to a partnership that included Gary Finder and Alan Schneider, "and we gelded him. The first time we ran him as a gelding, he got claimed. He was coming off a really bad race at Bay Meadows. I didn't think his form warranted anyone claiming him. I thought $32,000 was a good place. Obviously not."

Only Sherman reached in. At Del Mar, where claiming activity is at a frenzy, that is rare. "I couldn't believe I was the only claim for him, especially down here," Sherman said.

Carthage beat that $32,000 claiming field by 5 1/4 lengths and got a Beyer Speed Figure of 104, a career best and 57 points better than his disastrous previous start at Bay Meadows.

Carthage won twice in his next three starts, all in allowance races, at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate, but then needed surgery to remove a hind-ankle chip as 2004 turned to 2005.

He did not return to the races until last October, a break of 10 months. After losing his first two starts back, Carthage has reeled off five straight victories, all at six furlongs, the same distance as the Bing Crosby.

The last two wins were his best. On April 22, Carthage put away the comebacking Lost in the Fog and scored a three-length victory in the Golden Gate Sprint Handicap. He then took the Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint Handicap.

While Siren Lure is what Sherman refers to as "the barn pet," Carthage is not as accommodating. Sherman said he is straightforward when it comes to training, but around the barn, "he's not a kid's horse that you can pet and have fun with."

"He will nail you," Sherman said.

Lately, he has been doing the same to his rivals in his races.

"You can control his speed, and a horse like that is dangerous," Sherman said. "He's not speed-crazy. He comes away from the gate running, but he can sit just off the pace. I think he's hitting his peak."