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California Chrome trainer, back at Churchill Downs for first time since 1955, basks in Derby spotlight

Lew Freedman

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Art Sherman is the leprechaun of the 140th Kentucky Derby, a man who is of jockey height and at 77 has one foot in retirement, moving into an over-55 residence recently, taking salmon fishing trips to Alaska and reducing the size of his stable to about 15 horses.

The mouthpiece for the 3-year-old chestnut thoroughbred favorite California Chrome in Saturday's 11/4-mile Run for the Roses, when Sherman flashes his smile it's obvious he is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame the way a 7-year-old enjoys Christmas week. The spotlight on him has been brighter than at any other time in his long career in the sport.

There are aging trainers with white hair and hard-earned wisdom at race tracks all over the nation, and most of them never get to bask in the sun at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. They ply their trade for small purses at out-of-the-way structures where TV cameras, women wearing dazzling hats and men wearing expensive suits never frequent.

Periodically, these old-time trainers break into the lineup for America's most glamorous horse race and their gritty tales delight the public as thousand-watt lights shine on them for the first time in careers dating back to the Eisenhower Administration.

This time that trainer is Sherman, who last worked a horse at Churchill Downs in 1955. He was a 19-year-old exercise rider for Swaps, that year's winner. For the last 59 years Sherman watched the Kentucky Derby on TV.

When you reach a certain age it's easy to think your time has passed and that grand goal you set will never become reality. That was Sherman until a couple of low-budget owners who couldn't afford to pay their way into a suite at Churchill Downs stumbled upon greatness, smiled upon Sherman and handed him the keys to their kingdom.

So Sherman is here, a little bit dizzy, a little bit giddy. As a tribute to his past he set out to visit Swaps' grave, located by the Kentucky Derby Museum, 42 years after the horse died. He knew that since 1922 Wagner's Pharmacy and Luncheonette has been the breakfast gathering place where horsemen spew as much verbal manure as their mounts excrete by the barns. He could exaggerate just how large those Alaska salmon he caught were and fit right in.

"I thought I'd go in there under radar," Sherman said.

But before swallowing his eggs, six people asked him to pose for pictures. Uh, Art, you're wearing a green jacket with the letters A&S in white over your heart and a Derby cap reading California Chrome on the side. Those are clues to your identity. "I forgot," he said.

Outside Barn 20 where California Chrome, the early 5-2 favorite, was cloistered, Sherman was more of a picture magnet than if Sports Illustrated model Kate Upton happened past. Not that he minded. He waited more than a half century to be noticed.

"It's quite nice," he said. "They're all racing fans. A lot of years go by. I had a lot of good horses and I thought, 'I'd love to have one good enough for the Derby.' "

California Chrome owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn paid $8,000 for a mare named Love The Chase and bred her to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit for $2,000. California Chrome has won six straight races, including the Santa Anita Derby and this spring the owners turned down a $6 million offer to sell.

That refusal makes theirs the biggest long-shot bet in the field. Martin and Coburn rejected life-altering money for the gamble at fame and immortality, but it's hard to put a price tag on dreams.

"It's just racing luck," Sherman said of waiting so long for a California Chrome. "And he's a superstar."

 


By LEW FREEDMAN
Daily News correspondent