12/03/2015 3:24PM

Hovdey: Heartbreaking end to year for Sherman stable


Art Sherman won a $10,000 allowance race at Los Alamitos last Sunday night with a 3-year-old gelding named Well Maybe, a son of Yes It’s True owned by Dr. Ed Allred, who also owns Los Alamitos. It was the only bright spot on an otherwise miserable day as a horse trainer.

Sherman missed Well Maybe’s race because he was at Del Mar that afternoon to unveil Film Juror, a 2-year-old son of Uncle Mo owned by George Krikorian and for whom high hopes had been encouraged by a series of solid works. Those works also told Sherman that Film Juror would turn out to be a colt who could cover a route of ground, which made Sunday’s 6 1/2 furlongs only the first step of a journey that might lead who knows where.

“He’ll run a good race, maybe even pick up a check, and then we’ll stretch him out at Santa Anita,” Sherman said as he peered into the distance from his finish-line box.

But then, as the field made its way down the Del Mar backstretch, Film Juror began losing position as if struggling to keep up with the moderate pace. “Why’s he doing that?” Sherman wondered aloud.

The answer soon became sadly clear. By the time the field rounded the turn, Film Juror was being eased to a stop by James Graham. The moment Graham dismounted near the outside rail at the top of the stretch, his colt shuddered and dropped to the ground. Sherman made his way through the stands and onto the track for the long walk to his fallen horse, fearing the worst every step of the way.

“It was a heart attack,” Sherman said later. “I was in shock. A first-time-starting 2-year-old, doing good in the morning? I asked my vet if there was anything we missed, anything that would cause that. He said, ‘No, there’s just something in the heart that just causes it to burst.’ ”

To be precise, horses cannot have a “heart attack” as it is understood by their human handlers. Humans find plenty of ways to block their arteries and disrupt normal heart function. Horses get exercise, maintain high-fiber diets, and steer clear of tobacco. When a Thoroughbred has what looks like a heart attack, there is something else at work, as noted by Dr. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board’s equine medical director.

“Heart attack is more of a generic term for horses who suffer sudden death, which is probably a better way to put it,” Arthur said. “If it’s a ruptured aorta, we’d be able to find that very quickly. A major cause of that is parasite migration, which results in the weakening of a very high-pressure vessel. If they don’t find anything right away, they’ll take sections of the heart and other organs to see if they can detect some other cause, possibly viral. We look at sudden deaths very carefully because they’re very frustrating, and often, you can’t find an answer.”

The death of young Film Juror came 10 days after the extended Sherman stable lost the 3-year-old filly Gem of a Gal to a similar cardiac event during a race at Golden Gate Fields. Gem of a Gal, running for Art’s son Steve Sherman, had won four races in 11 starts and was being ridden by Russell Baze.

“It’s so spooky it’s unbelievable,” Art Sherman said. “Hopefully, we’ll know something when the autopsies come back, but I haven’t had anything happen like this in more than 20 years.”

Until necropsies are performed, it is a waste of time to speculate on the reason for the cardiac events. A third horse, the 4-year-old filly Kantina Kowgirl, trained by George Papaprodromou, suffered a similar fate last week following a race at Del Mar.

Trainers have a tough enough task keeping a Thoroughbred conventionally healthy and sound of limb. The idea that there also could be an undetectable force at work, compromising the pulmonary system, is enough to drive a temperate man to drink. “It’s a real helpless feeling,” Sherman said. “I did pour myself a little Crown Royal that evening.”

Sherman can be forgiven if he is relieved 2015 soon will come to an end. The season began at the top of the game with California Chrome named 2014 Horse of the Year. The glow faded only a little after the colt finished second to Shared Belief in the San Antonio Stakes and second in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, an effort worth $2 million alone. But when California Chrome was sent to England by majority owner Perry Martin to train for a race at Royal Ascot, the plot was hopelessly lost.

California Chrome returned to the United States without having run, minority owner Steve Coburn sold his share to Taylor Made Farm, and the colt was reunited with Sherman at Los Alamitos, where he is training for a comeback as a 5-year-old.

“He looks like a million bucks,” Sherman said. “I’m getting real excited. He’s bigger and stronger than ever, just pulling his rider around out there.”

California Chrome has another work scheduled for early Saturday morning, and then, that afternoon, Sherman will saddle the 2-year-old Scat Daddy filly Baby Bea Scattin in the $100,000 Soviet Problem Stakes at Los Alamitos.

If she wins, it will be a bit of a surprise, since she is up against the recent Del Mar winners Patriotic Diamond, Lucky to Win, and Roo’s Valentine, but if she doesn’t, it’s no big deal as long as she returns to play another day.