04/29/2014 1:42PM

Hovdey: Meet the man who polishes the Chrome

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Art Sherman was seeing to a few last-minute items around the barn late Sunday morning before sending California Chrome to Kentucky. He was outwardly calm, if by calm one means checking his phone every 30 seconds to see who’s calling now, or glancing furtively at the computer screen images from the closed-circuit cameras in California Chrome’s stall. He made sure the colt’s bag of horse treats were by the door, ready to ship, then picked up a bundle of clothes.

“Alan’s – can you believe that?” Sherman said. “At his age, sending laundry home for his mom. And she’ll do it, too!”

This was a trainer on the verge of a life-changing event, if indeed your life can be changed significantly by anything at the age of 77. Art and Faye Sherman, who renewed their vows on their 50th anniversary two years ago aboard a ship off the coast of Spain, would be leaving the next day for Kentucky and their first Derby together. California Chrome was scheduled to depart a few hours earlier, in the wee hours of Monday morning.

“Probably just as well I won’t be here when he loads,” Sherman said. “The guys say I always make them nervous, fretting over everything. But I’m a detail kind of guy. You can never go wrong worrying about details.”

True enough. But even the most dedicated hands-on trainer must at some point let loose of the reins and trust somebody. Sherman has assembled around California Chrome a troupe of low-profile talent that has taken the colt from modest little statebred stakes to the brink of everlasting fame, led by his son and assistant, Alan Sherman, exercise rider Willie Delgado, and the colt’s groom, Raul Rodriguez.

That was Rodriguez at California’s Chrome’s shank Monday afternoon at Churchill Downs, as the Santa Anita Derby winner backed off the van from the airport and made himself at home in Tom Proctor’s barn, where his stall will be equipped with the same bright green tetherball that keeps him busy back home at Los Alamitos.

“Sometimes he plays,” said Rodriguez, who wears a Tom Selleck moustache and his cap pulled low. “He likes to bite. You have to be careful around his mouth, and with his back end. He gets a little nervous when you are back there.”

Rodriguez, 57, has handled California Chrome from the minute he came into Sherman’s care, more than a year ago at Hollywood Park. On Sunday he recalled those first impressions as he packed his supplies.

“The patrón watched him close and said to me, ‘Raul, I think this might be a good horse, a stakes horse,’ ” Rodriguez said. The patrón was right.

Rodriguez is from the state of Jalisco, to the west of Mexico City. It is horse country, and the American racetrackers who have come from Jalisco are too numerous to count, among them trainer Paco Gonzalez of Free House fame and his brother, jockey Miguel Yanez.

“I came here in 1982,” Rodriguez said. “Worked for Richard Mandella about three months, for Alan Severinson, and for Jerry Fanning, at the track and at his ranch. The ranch was good. I could raise a family.”

All three of his sons now work at the track, including Raul Jr., who rubs horses for Sherman. Rodriguez himself has been with the stable about a dozen years. His best horse for Sherman was the Grade 1 sprinter Siren Lure.

Although his image will be plastered far and wide this week, Rodriguez inevitably will be the face in the photos that ends up slipping through the cracks of time, even if California Chrome wins. Such is the nature of his job, both anonymous and indispensible. And yet, in the recorded history of the sport, there is a special place reserved for those men who have spent untold hours tending to the most intimate needs of the game’s greatest performers, horses who were stars when they arrived at the Derby and demigods by the time they left.

There was the entertaining Eddie Sweat, always dressed for success, at home in the stall with the imposing Secretariat. John Polston, Seattle Slew’s main man, helped keep the fiery colt grounded. Courtly Juan Alaniz treated Affirmed like a pampered warrior prince, while Charles Clay played the role of stern father figure in the saga of Sunday Silence.

If Rodriguez is to join the list, he will get there with a colt of such modest origins that every leap up the class ladder has been accompanied by gasps of wonder. Rodriguez, the doting caretaker, knew him when.

“When he was a baby, I was doing the snaps of the webbing when he turned around too fast and kicked,” he said. “It scraped all the skin off the back of my hand, but I got lucky. I told the patr ó n, I almost lose the fingers.”

Someone pointed to the colt’s four white feet, a feature that can set off warning alarms in old-time horsemen as a possible concern. Rodriguez made a sound that scoffed at the idea.

“No problem,” he said, as California Chrome came to the front of his stall to nibble his hay rack. “And his legs, never sore. His hair you see is very short. We never clip him, and I put a blanket on him every night. I will take three blankets to Kentucky, a special one for the mosquitos.”

Tending to such details are second nature, part of how horse races are won. Even a Kentucky Derby. Rodriguez, the consummate pro on a lifetime ride, allowed himself to think about what might happen next.

“I want to take a little time off and go back to Mexico for one week,” he said. “I asked the patrón when that might be. He said he doesn’t know. Maybe two weeks, maybe three, maybe two months! It depends.”

On a lot of things – including how well Rodriguez does his job.