California Chrome: the least-likely Kentucky Derby favourite in history?


“We almost had a disaster yesterday,” says Art Sherman, trainer of the current favourite for this year’s , California Chrome.

The near-disaster concerned two riderless horses who ran amok on Los Alamitos racecourse the morning before, while California Chrome was out for his routine exercise. In a move right out of the Red Adair handbook, one of the loose horses made a beeline for California Chrome, avoiding him by inches as he whizzed past on his flight back to his stable.

“He missed him by that much,” says Sherman, illustrating with his hands a moderate-sized fish. “It looked like Chrome had a target on his back.”

But it’s the morning after the morning before, and now, as Sherman stands at the rail to watch California Chrome go through his daily paces once again, any fears of a double lightening-strike have been all but banished. That’s because this morning, and every morning until horse, trainer and their media shadow head east to Churchill Downs for the big race on 3 May, for about 20 minutes the track is a no-go zone for everyone but California Chrome and his rider.

“I spoke to the doc [Dr Ed Allred, who owns Los Alamitos racecourse] on the phone last night,” says Sherman. “He said to me: ‘I can’t let anything happen to this horse.’ So, they took the decision to close the track when Chrome trains.

You can’t take a chance, not with a horse like him.

The problem is, hundreds of other racehorses descend upon Los Alamitos every morning during a narrow four-and-a-half hour training window, and some trainers would rather you take their first-born than take 20 minutes from their military-tight work schedule “I know a lot of people are going to whine and cry about this,” Sherman says.

Mike Harrington, one of those aggrieved trainers, rides up to the rail and leans over – stately, dark and glowering, as though Sergio Leone is sitting somewhere off to the side directing him.

“Well, Art,” he drawls. “My training schedule’s all screwed up 'cos o’ you.”

There’s a momentary silence before Harrington grins broadly, the charade over. He rides off, wholly unconcerned about the disruption.

Given the respect and sheer affection that Sherman is afforded, it’s unlikely he’ll suffer much worse in the upcoming weeks.

At 77, Sherman has been a mainstay of the California racing circuit for more than 60 years, first as an exercise rider, then as a jockey, then as a trainer. In all his years as a trainer – 35 in total – he has had talented horses, but none nearly as gifted as California Chrome. Nor has he trained a starter in the Derby.

But the septuagenarian with only 15 horses in his barn is only a part of why California Chrome is one of the unlikeliest and one of the most compelling major Derby contenders to emerge in years.

Take his owners, for instance: Perry Martin and Steve Coburn of the self-proclaimed Dumb Ass Partnership. They brought Love the Chase, California Chrome’s dam, for $8,000. They bred Love the Chase to an unproven California-based stallion called Lucky Pulpit for $2,500. The result: the millionaire, California Chrome.

To put that into some kind of perspective, Constitution, one of trainer Todd Pletcher’s former leading Derby hopes, cost $400,000 as a yearling at the sales. Constitution’s sire, Tapit, stands for $150,000.

Then you have the not-inconsiderable matter of where California Chrome is trained. Until the start of this year, Los Alamitos was a Quarter Horse track (some of the less equitable racing folk would say Quarter Horses are to Thoroughbreds what the National Enquirer is to National Geographic).

While most of Hollywood Park’s horsemen and women decamped to Santa Anita when the track closed in February, a good portion of the diaspora migrated to Los Alamitos – including Sherman. The track was widened in the winter to accommodate the refugees. A third of the centre-field still resembles a building site. And while Los Alamitos is not without its charms, it’s not the first place you would go scouting for a winner of one of the world’s richest and most recognizable races.

Sherman says: “It’s great for me. It’s great for Doc and the track. It’s great for racing. Chrome’s so popular. I call him a rockstar.”

'He thrives on running'

California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza after winning the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park. Photograph: Amy Gaskin

The California Chrome story began a whisker off a year ago, when Sherman ran him in one of last season’s earliest two-year-old races, finishing second.

“I usually don’t do that [race two-year-olds early in the season],” Sherman says. “But he thrives on running. I thought he might end up getting sore shins. I thought he might get this or that. But he’s remarkable. He reminds me of the good horses from the old days, like Seabiscuit. He’s doing things that are kinda spooky for me.”

A brace of wins followed, but California Chrome looked vulnerable to higher-calibre horses each time Sherman upped him in class. Until the King Glorious Stakes, that is – the very last stake race held at Hollywood Park.

“I want to tell you, it meant a lot to me winning that last stake there,” says Sherman. “I rode my first race as a jockey there, in ’57. A lot of my friends who I grew up with around Hollywood Park aren’t around anymore. It meant a lot to me.”

The King Glorious was where Sherman realised for certain that California Chrome was a horse with a whole swag-bag full of potential. Chrome struck again in the California Cup Derby a month later, running out a resounding five-and-a-half-length winner. His next win, in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, was even more decisive – he was never headed when skipping seven and a half lengths clear.

Despite piecing together a string of impressive performances, California Chrome was still somewhat overlooked by the naysayers who couldn’t quite picture a California-bred who had cost less than a second-hand Ford Focus winning a race that is generally the preserve of the equine Lamborghinis.

Then came the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, earlier this month.

“He got me a little nervous in the gates – his head went totally sideways,” said Sherman, recalling a stuttering start in which California Chrome broke with uncharacteristic hesitation. Sherman needn’t have worried. After a quarter of a mile California Chrome was lying second. At the top of the stretch he was in front. At the wire, he wasn’t just in front, he was five and a quarter lengths ahead of horses that many thought would prove his unraveling.

He’s surprised me how easily he’s done things, especially that last race. He pulled away from those horses like they weren’t there. It makes you sit back and say, ‘Wow.’

It’s easy to like Sherman. He gives patient, thoughtful answers to questions he’s been asked time and time and time again – in part, one senses, through an underlying disbelief at the events of the past few months, as though each question serves to remind him of the fairy tale. And although he’s 77, he yo-yos between barn and track as though battery operated. Behind his spectacles, his eyes seem never to rest – he may be amiable but he’s as alert as a Jack Russell on a country walk.

It should be noted that while this will be the first time that Sherman has gone to the Kentucky Derby as a trainer, he has been involved with a Kentucky Derby winner. Much has been written about how as a 15-year-old he used to exercise Swaps, who won the Derby in 1955 before sealing his immortality with a string of famous victories.

“Racing was different in those days. We went to Kentucky by train. It took about four days. Swaps had about half of the wagon to himself. He could get down and roll, get up and walk around. I ran out of food about halfway. I remember, I had to jump out every stop we had, grab something to eat, a hamburger or whatever. And I was pretty ripe by the time we got there – I hadn’t showered in four days.”

As for the race itself, Sherman didn’t enjoy what you would call prime-seat viewing among all the hoopla and fanfare: “I was down at the backside, watching from the barn area. Someone had to be there to wash him off and look after him after the race. Like I said, racing was just so different in those days.”

Sherman was pretty illustrious as a jockey, too. He rode at tracks all around the country in a career that spanned 21 years. His album of memories is full of the weird and strangely wonderful – like the time President Nixon presented the trophy after he won a big race at Maryland.

“I was surrounded by the FBI and the secret services. It turns out that we had gone to the same high school and the headlines the next day were, ‘Old Neighbors Meet.’”

'After every race he gets better'

Art Sherman says California Chrome, a 'sweetheart' who is 'always focused', will thrive in the Derby. Photograph: Alamy

Sherman believes that one of the reasons that California Chrome has accomplished all that he has is his temperament: “He’s been a sweetheart. He’s always focused, always had the right temperament. And that’s something to consider when he gets to the Derby and there’s a lot of people screaming and hollering.”

California Chrome’s team seems to have the same impression.

“He impresses me. After every race, he gets better,” said William Delgado, California Chrome’s exercise rider, who uses as an example of his horse’s laissez-faire approach to life the incident yesterday morning.

“When the horses got loose, Art was screaming at me: ‘Get him off the track, get him off the track.’ It was scary. But Chrome just stood there saying, ‘Huh? What’s going on?’ He’s just so laid back.”

“It wasn’t so bad for me,” said Alan Sherman, Sherman’s son who first rode for his father as a jockey before joining him as assistant in 1991. “I couldn’t see it ‘cos I was down the other end of the track.”

While Art Sherman wasn’t born into a racing family, his family now is involved in some capacity or other: Sherman’s other son, Steve, is a successful trainer in Northern California while Sherman’s wife, Faye, used to run a race-track gift shop. The stable is very much a small family affair.

“I’m called the Mule,” said Alan Sherman, who is quietly confident about California Chrome’s Derby prospects. “He’s been training really well. He’s grown up in a hurry. He’s got some class and he doesn’t get upset about a lot. I’d rather have the favourite than not.”

“Quietly confident”, however, is an expression seemingly foreign to co-owner Steve Coburn.

“I’m saying this right now: if this horse gets a clean trip, he will win the Kentucky Derby and he’ll go down in history.” Coburn told me over the phone from his home in rural Wellington, Nevada, “20 miles from the nearest grocery store”. Coburn thinks California Chrome’s resume has all the credentials needed to lift the biggest race in the nation:

There’s not another horse out there that has his speed and his ability. If you look at the statistics, there’s not another horse going to Kentucky that’s faster than him. So let the games begin.

Coburn explained how he and co-owner Martin Perry are simple “working-class folk” who commute hours every day to work – Coburn for a company that puts magnetic strips on credit cards, Perry for a consumer safety firm. Love the Chase was the first horse they owned outright, and her former owners were the inspiration behind the name of their partnership: “When we brought the filly for eight grand, they said to us that we were real dumbasses for doing it.”

“This colt is just so cool,” he added. “He doesn’t get excited about anything except Mrs Pastures horse cookies. It’s a hard cookie that’s got corn, barley, oats and molasses in it. He’s been getting them since he was three months old and they taste like a granola bar. They’re actually pretty darn good – I’ve eaten one myself.”

Back at the barn, California Chrome stands quietly for a bath after morning exercise, happy to nibble the leather lead in his hotwalker’s hands, then to nibble on the actual hotwalker. Sherman prepares to leave the track early – he has a horse running that afternoon at Santa Anita – but he takes a moment to reflect upon the impact “Chrome” has had on his career – a career that had, to all intents and purposes, enjoyed its summer in the sun and was watching the evenings creep in.

“You do reach a stage in your life where certain things just aren’t that important to you,” he says. “I run a horse in a claimer today and it’s exciting to me. Training – it’s a challenge, and that’s what keeps you in the game, wondering what that next challenge will be. But it’s funny, I haven’t received any [new] horses. People still seem to want the younger guys to train their horses.”

What about the challenge of getting California Chrome through the next few weeks leading up to the Derby – and the big race itself?

“I’ll keep him fresh for the Derby. He’ll do two more half-mile workouts, nothing much. And then when he gets to Churchill, all I’ll have to do is school him in the gates.

“Everything is luck in the Derby. You’ve got to have a good post-position. You’ve got to have a good racing position. Everything has to go right. But most importantly, you’ve got to have the right horse.”