04/02/2014 2:49PM

Jay Hovdey: Art Sherman a rookie who has seen it all before

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If California Chrome performs the way Art Sherman thinks he can Saturday in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby, look out.

Here comes Art Sherman.

If he wins Saturday, California Chrome would be heading to the May 3 Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites. This would not be unusual. Any Santa Anita Derby winner, barring the rankest of longshots, heads to Louisville as a horse to watch – even if his trainer is a 77-year-old Derby rookie.

“I know the horse is doing terrific, and I’m kind of anxious to see if he can pass this test,” Sherman said. “If he can beat this field, I think he’s got a legitimate shot at the Derby.”

It was the Tuesday before the race, and Sherman was sitting in the kitchen of his home in the north San Diego County enclave of Rancho Bernardo. Sherman and his wife, Faye – they were married in 1962 – bought the place a year ago, before California Chrome was anywhere close to his first start as a 2-year-old. For all they knew, the rest of their racing days would be spent dabbling with a few decent young horses and enjoying the success of their sons, Steve and Alan, both trainers.

Sherman was born in Brooklyn and raised in Southern California. His father, Harry Sherman, was a barber whose clientele urged young Art to try the racetrack. After 23 years and about 1,600 wins as a jockey and the rest as a trainer, Sherman has good memories to burn:

Of winning the 1958 Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Bowie and meeting Vice President Richard Nixon in the winner’s circle (they both went to Whittier High) ...

Of hanging a nose on Eddie Arcaro to win a race in New York (“He said to me, ‘Nice ride, kid.’ ”)...

Of making the tough transition from jockey to trainer and holding his own in Northern California against such top-notch horsemen as Greg Gilchrist, Chuck Jenda, Bobby Martin, Steve Specht, and Jerry Hollendorfer.

“Best day I ever had as a trainer was winning six,” Sherman recalled, harking back to an afternoon during the summer of 2005 when his horses swept five races at Bay Meadows and another at Del Mar. “I still pinch myself.”

Then along came California Chrome, now on a streak of three commanding wins for owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, and the world has turned upside down.

“There’s been a lot of hype, a lot of good press,” Sherman said. “But being around as long as I have, I try to step back and always wonder if he’s good enough to take the next step.”

When he does, he loves what he sees.

“Sometimes when you’re around him all the time, you don’t see it,” Sherman said. “You see him walking to the track, next to the pony, galloping and taking a nice hold. But then, when you see him in the paddock and you look at him with the tack on with the other horses around him, you think, ‘There’s no better-looking horse out here.’ ”

Then again, what’s a trainer going to say about a horse who could take him to his first Kentucky Derby?

“I know, but when you even get [trainer Bob] Baffert saying, ‘You’re doing a good job with that horse – he’s a runner,’ you’ve got something,” Sherman said.

It can be argued by those steeped in the hard lessons of history that Sherman never has trained a 3-year-old remotely as talented as California Chrome and therefore has precious little context by which to judge his colt as a genuine Kentucky Derby prospect.

Then again, he’s the only trainer in the Santa Anita Derby field who ever slept with Swaps. Sherman’s first job at the track was as an exercise rider and all-around hand for the power-packed Rex Ellsworth stable of California horses trained by Mesh Tenney. He was 18, and the year was 1955, when Ellsworth drew a bead on the Kentucky Derby with his chestnut fireball.

“We went back to the Derby by rail from California,” Sherman said. “Took five days. The car with the horses was divided in two – Swaps on one side and the other horses on the other. I tried sleeping with the other horses, but they were dipping in the buckets, getting water all over my face, so I crawled over to the other side and laid down beside Swaps. He was such a sweetheart.”

Swaps won the Derby, defeating the favored Nashua, then hightailed it back home to California. By the end of the 1956 season, Swaps was hailed as one of the greatest racehorses of all time and hands down the greatest ever bred in California.

“It was a little spooky,” Sherman recalled. “I always hoped he galloped okay to the pole for me. I remember working him once a mile in thirty-five. He just floated. But he had a great demeanor, too. He was the kind of horse you could come up and pet him. When we schooled him in the paddock at Churchill Downs, people would reach out to touch him.”

Like Swaps, California Chrome is a chestnut bred in California, but Sherman will pull you up right there.

“There’ll never be another Swaps,” Sherman said. “But one thing California Chrome has in common is that attitude you need if you’re going to try something like the Kentucky Derby. He truly enjoys what he’s doing.”

Let the fun begin.