01/29/2014 2:14PM

Jay Hovdey: Sherman polishing California Chrome with Derby in mind

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Shigeki Kikkawa
California Chrome won the California Cup Derby on Jan. 25 at Santa Anita Park.

Art Sherman woke up last Saturday morning hoping his horse would get a decent piece of a $250,000 pot offered for Cal-breds to be run later that day at Santa Anita.

He went to bed that night wondering about hotel rates in Louisville.

It’s a long jump from the last Saturday in January to the first Saturday in May, which means there is nothing that says California Chrome necessarily will make it to the Kentucky Derby. History indicates he’s got a steep climb, and not even his authoritative, 5 1/2-length romp in the California Cup Derby gets him any closer to the starting gate, let alone the winner’s circle, at Churchill Downs.

The stats alone are brutal on horses reared out West. The last California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby was Decidedly, a son of Derby winner Determine, who was bred and raised at George Pope’s El Peco Ranch near the town of Madera in the state’s vast Central Valley. That was in 1962.

In the 51 years since then, there have been four Derby winners from Florida, three from Virginia, two each from Pennsylvania and Canada, and one each from Maryland, Illinois, and New York. New York, for pete’s sake! The other 37 were from Kentucky, including the past nine consecutive.

At least Cal-breds like Best Pal, Cavonnier, and Free House hit the board in the 1990s. More recently just showing up has been a heavy lift. Of the 195 runners to contest the last 10 Derbies, exactly three have been Cal-breds, or 1.5 percent. This compares unfavorably to California’s 8.2 percent share of the national Thoroughbred foal crop for 2011, the year California Chrome hit the ground for his owners and breeders, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn.

“The Cal-breds haven’t really shined for a long time,” Sherman said. “But boy, it sure would be nice.”

Sherman, a native of Brooklyn, was still savoring the Cal Cup Derby earlier this week while taking care of some personal business near his home in Rancho Bernardo, just inland from Del Mar.

“I had to take a written test for my driver’s license,” Sherman said. “That happens when you reach a certain age. I passed, believe it or not. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to take a road test.”

Sherman turns 77 on Feb. 17, but you wouldn’t know it unless someone pointed out this was the same Art Sherman who worked for the Rex Ellsworth outfit as a teenager in the 1950s and traveled to Louisville to win the 1955 Kentucky Derby with Swaps. Sherman was asked if he’s been to the Derby since.

“Yes, once – with Terrang,” he replied, referring to the 1956 Santa Anita Derby winner.

If Sherman ends up on the Derby trail, the whole clan will be involved. Art spends his time in Southern California with his son Alan at his side, while his son Steve Sherman runs a successful operation in Northern California. Horses and Shermans shuttle up and down the state as opportunities arise.

“I don’t have to do any of the hard work anymore,” Art said with a laugh. “I take care of the clients and oversee a lot. I’ve got two boys who are real good trainers, which makes life a lot simpler – as long as they let the old man have the credit.”

In terms of service, Sherman has been a trainer (35 years) a lot long longer than he was a jockey (21 years), so he is allowed to ignore the daunting historical evidence arrayed against his colt and enjoy the view from the stall of California Chrome anytime he wants. The view is choice.

This is a classic caramel chestnut with plenty of white trim – hence his flashy name – who is just now figuring out what a beast he could become. The 1 1/16-mile Cal Cup Derby was his eighth start and fourth win, dating back to last April at Hollywood Park.

“It kind of spooked me the way he opened up as quick as he did turning for home the other day,” Sherman said. “It looked like he went from second to five in front. That picked my head up a whole lot. It just took him a while for the light bulb to come on. Now he’s really a lot more focused, with a great attitude – just a cool horse to be around.”

In order to make the Kentucky Derby field, California Chrome will need to run lights out in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 8. If he wins he’s in, with 50 of those precious Derby qualifying points. If he does not win, his trainer will need to know why before looking at another race to score the necessary Derby points.

“We’ll find out if he belongs,” Sherman said. “But that’s the good thing about a statebred program for a 3-year-old like him. You can bring them along on their own time. You don’t have to hook Baffert’s killers in open races right off.

“I’ve been around a lot of nice young ones in my lifetime, so I kind of know what to look for,” Sherman added. “It is scary, knowing what you’ll be up against going into open company. But fingers crossed, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.”