By Jay Privman
ARCADIA, Calif. – It has been 59 years since Art Sherman first went to the Kentucky Derby as an 18-year-old exercise rider for 1955 Derby winner Swaps. After that, he was a jockey, then a trainer, but never has he returned to the Derby. But now he has a good reason to go back, and no one is riding higher.
The Sherman-trained California Chrome, already considered the ante-post favorite for the May 3 Derby, emphatically sodified that position Saturday with a powerhouse performance in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby, which he won by 5 1/4 lengths after a bit of early difficulty. So impressive was the win, his fourth straight, that Sherman, 77, joked, “Maybe I should take my jock’s license out.”
Victor Espinoza had the mount Saturday, but the way California Chrome ($3.40) ran, Shaquille O’Neal could have ridden him. Facing two other highly regarded stakes-winning 3-year-olds, Hoppertunity and Candy Boy, California Chrome blew them off the racetrack.
“It’s kind of spooky,” Sherman said. “I’m not used to that. I’ve seen my horses win but not do what he’s doing.”
Hoppertunity rallied for second, 3 1/2 lengths in front of third-place Candy Boy. Dublin Up was fourth and was followed by Big Tire, Rprettyboyfloyd, Friendswith K Mill, and Schoolofhardrocks in the field of eight.
California Chrome completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:47.52 and set off a raucous celebration in the winner’s circle for the growing entourage of his owners and breeders, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin.
California Chrome earned a first prize of $600,000 and 100 qualifying points under the system used by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field should more 20 horses enter. Hoppertunity earned 40 points. Both of those horses, though, already had enough points to make the field based on prior wins.
Candy Boy, however, is in jeopardy of not making the field. He earned 20 points for third and now has 30 overall, which doesn’t yet guarantee him a spot in the field.
California Chrome broke a half-step slowly but was sensible in those first few strides, as Dublin Up crossed over from the outside stall and took the lead through an opening quarter in 22.89 seconds. California Chrome was lapped on him comfortably from second, Candy Boy tracked while three paths wide, and Hoppertunity slid into a ground-saving trip behind those runners.
“I got a little spooked leaving the gate,” Sherman said. But he liked where California Chrome ended up. “I think he’s a better horse stalking,” he said. “I prefer this type of trip.”
Dublin Up led narrowly after a half in 47.02 seconds and six furlongs in 1:10.81, but then California Chrome accelerated sharply near the quarter pole and quickly shot clear of his pursuers.
Hoppertunity moved into a striking position, but California Chrome was not yielding. Hoppertunity continued resolutely for second in a good prep. Candy Boy was only a half-length behind California Chrome after six furlongs but was 8 3/4 back at the finish.
California Chrome has won six times in 10 starts, and his last four wins have been by a combined 24 1/4 lengths, an average of just more than six lengths. He just seems to be getting better.
“My expectations were high, but this exceeded it,” said Alan Sherman, his father’s top assistant.
“He has more left,” said Espinoza, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2002 on War Emblem.
Now, Sherman gets to make a trip to the Derby as a trainer in the twilight of his career, not as a fresh-faced exercise rider. Sherman speaks in awe of Swaps, as well as his trainer, Mesh Tenney, and Rex Ellsworth, his owner and breeder. And while Sherman would never dare to put California Chrome in the company of Swaps, he’s been impressed by his progress.
“Swaps set six world records,” Sherman said. “And the people who had him, they taught me a lot. I’m just honored to have a horse like this.”