05/15/2014 1:59PM

Hovdey: California Chrome has close family circle

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome trains May 14 at Pimlico in advance of Saturday's Preakness Stakes.

California Chrome chose neither his parents nor his destiny. As a Thoroughbred racehorse, you pretty much work with what you’re handed at birth, and what he has done is remarkable, rising from the protection of restricted stakes competition to sit atop the sport on a five-race winning streak crowned by the Kentucky Derby.

As for the two-legged members of his tribe, they all had a choice. Nowhere was it written that the Shermans, the Delgados or the Rodriguez family had to sink their lives so deeply into the Thoroughbred world. But they did, and the results of their labors will be on display again Saturday when California Chrome tries to add the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico to his growing reputation.

Alberto Delgado and his younger brother, Willie, are familiar names on the Maryland scene. For their own reasons, they ventured out West, hoping to tap into one of California’s famous reinventions. Last year, Alberto ended up winning a maiden race and a small Del Mar stakes event aboard a promising Cal-bred for trainer Art Sherman. A Cal-bred named California Chrome. Willie, a jockey turned exercise rider, followed his brother’s lead and got a job in the Sherman barn last fall.

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After two troubled losses aboard California Chrome, Alberto Delgado was replaced by Victor Espinoza. He eventually returned to Maryland. Willie, in the meantime, remained glued to the chestnut colt every morning, at Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos, Churchill Downs, and now, in a homecoming, at Pimlico.

“He came to the barn yesterday morning,” Willie said of his brother Thursday. “He’s sad not to be riding the horse anymore, sure. You can’t help that, what this colt has done. But he said to me, ‘Little brother, you’ve done a good job with this colt. A good job.’ ”

Back at the Sherman barn at Los Alamitos, you can’t turn around without bumping into a Rodriguez. Raul Rodriguez has been California Chrome’s groom since the charismatic colt entered the barn 15 months ago. His wife, his brother, and one of his three sons also work there. But it is Raul who has become the superstar as the most photographed stablehand in North America.

“He’s the rock,” said Alan Sherman, Art’s son. “If Raul’s happy, we’re happy.”

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If Rodriguez is the rock, then Alan Sherman is the paper, the scissors, and whatever else it takes to keep the California Chrome road show on its wheels and rolling through the Triple Crown ordeal. “I can’t even begin to imagine doing this without him,” Art Sherman said.

At 45, Alan Sherman is applying everything he’s ever learned at the side of his father, including a switch in careers from riding to training.

“I think both of us weren’t there as jockeys to just ride the horse and jump off,” Alan Sherman said. “We were paying attention to all the different aspects of how people go about training horses.”

Art Sherman rode for 23 years, while his son’s jockey career lasted only a fraction of that. “I knew my career wouldn’t last long,” Alan Sherman said. “I had a size 9 shoe.”

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Alan’s older brother, Steve Sherman, has his own public stable in San Francisco. Alan was asked if the father they know is the same even-keeled, avuncular Art Sherman being revealed through the media onslaught over the past few weeks.

“Oh yeah,” Alan said. “He’s a genuine kind of guy. The only time he’d ever get mad at me or my brother was when we mouthed off at our mom. He wouldn’t stand for that. Also, he’d get a little hot when we wrecked his cars.”

Boys will be boys. According to Alan, a teenage Steve took out a lamp post and two parked cars with the family truck, while Alan admits to mauling his dad’s Honda.

“I was passing on the right,” he said.

Which is perfectly okay at Santa Anita.

For all the logistical challenges of the Triple Crown, the living out of a suitcase and the constant media demands, Alan Sherman is having the time of his life. And why not? About every other day he shows up with a new cap or a new jacket sporting the logo of an equine product anxious to brush close to the California Chrome mystique. “Yes, there’s a lot of swag to deal with,” Alan said with a grin.

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And a few silly hassles, like the archaic licensing process that owners, trainers, and their personnel must go through each time they take a horse to a different jurisdiction. Delgado, Rodriguez, and both Shermans had to present themselves before officials of the Maryland Racing Commission to be allowed to run California Chrome in the Preakness. Fees for the groom and the exercise rider were five bucks each, $25 for the assistant trainer, and $150 for the trainer.

“See him?” said Alan, pointing to his father. “He’s got all the money.”

Then it was time to head for the traditional Alibi Breakfast, at which the trainers of the Preakness horses would be given a chance to rehearse their excuses. Art Sherman scratched his head. “I guess I can always blame Alan,” he said.

It’s worked so far.