California Chrome's Derby bid takes trainer back in time

Fri May 2, 2014 2:08pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Art Sherman, the trainer of Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome, has been waiting a lifetime for his chance to win America's most famous race.

At 77, he will become the oldest trainer to prepare the Derby winner if he succeeds after finally discovering a horse good enough to earn a start in the Run for the Roses.

But although California Chrome is the first Derby runner Sherman has trained, he has already had a big involvement with a previous winner.

In 1955, long before Sherman had taken out his trainer's license, he was a skinny teenager working as a stablehand in California.

His job included working as an exercise rider and one of the horses he rode in training was Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner. Sherman accompanied Swaps on the long train trip from California to Churchill Downs and even slept in the horse's boxcar.

Sherman watched in awe as Swaps etched his name into the history books as just the second of three California-bred horses to win the Kentucky Derby. The others were Morvich (1922) and Decidedly (1962).

In 1957, Sherman became a jockey, spending the next two decades in the saddle, though he never got to ride in the Derby. In 1979, he quit riding and took out his trainer's license, establishing a successful operation in the Golden State.

He has won plenty of races but never had a horse good enough for the Derby, at least until California Chrome came along.

Like his trainer, the colt comes from humble beginnings. He was bred for $10,000, a tiny investment in a sport where regally-bred colts change hands for millions of dollars.

The horse is owned by Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, who came together after joining a larger syndicate that raced a mare called Love the Chase, which won just one race.

When the partnership dissolved, Coburn and Martin bought the mare for $8,000 and called their two-man syndicate Dumb-Ass Partners, after everyone told them they were crazy.

They sent her to a modest stallion, called Lucky Pulpit, who cost $2,000 to breed with. The mating produced California Chrome, a flashy chestnut colt.

In his first season on the track, as a 2-year-old last year, he raced seven times for three wins and a second, collecting over $200,000 in prizemoney, marking a fast and lucrative return on their investment.

Now a 3-year-old, he won his first race this season by 5-1/2 lengths, then his second, the Grade II San Felipe Stakes, by 7-1/4 lengths, a performance which instantly grabbed the American racing world's attention.

Coburn and Martin were offered $6 million to sell a 51 percent share of the horse. Their answer: "Hell, no!," Coburn explained.

The following month, California Chrome romped to victory by over five lengths in the Santa Anita Derby, taking his total earnings past $1 million and promising the chance to win plenty more.

The victory also provided Sherman with his first Grade I winner as a trainer and ensured the horse would go to the Kentucky Derby as the overwhelming favorite.

The trip to Churchill Downs this time could not have been more different for Sherman. There was no train trip and nights spent sleeping on a bed of straw.

The horse and the connections all flew to Louisville on chartered planes, where they have become the center of attention during the buildup to Saturday's $2.2 million race.

The sport of kings loves a blue-collar winner and Sherman and his small band of winners have stayed true to their roots.

Amidst all the hype, Sherman took some time out to visit an old friend, stopping by the gravesite in the garden behind the Kentucky Derby Museum, where Swaps is buried.

Whether it is coincidence or fate, California Chrome is a descendant of Swaps and although it remains to be seen whether he will emulate the 1955 winner on Saturday, Sherman said part of his long wait is over: "He's my Swaps."

(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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