Art Sherman's lifetime horsemanship hit the stratosphere

December 20th, 2021

Art Sherman had a storied career in horse racing before California Chrome walked into it.

The septuagenarian started as an exercise rider and earned 900 wins during a 23-year career as a jockey before becoming a trainer in 1979 and later adding owner to his resume. But he readily admits that the chestnut colt with a flashy blaze took his career to another level.

“[California Chrome’s] put us in a different atmosphere - stratosphere, actually,” he said.

California Chrome May 26 (Photo by Coglianese Photos)

California Chrome’s almost mythical story began when first-time breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin purchased Love the Chase, a horse they each owned 5% of as part of a Blinkers On racing partnership, as a broodmare prospect for $8,000. They bred her to Lucky Pulpit for $2,000. The men liked the great horses, including Swaps, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat, that were in the sire’s distant ancestry. The result was California Chrome.

Coburn claims that before Chrome was born, he had a dream that the foal would be a colt with four white feet and a blaze. Martin mapped out a Triple Crown plan for Chrome before he ever set foot on a track. 

When Sherman was 77, Coburn and Martin selected him to train Chrome because they liked his old-school ways and the individualized attention his small barn could give to their horse. The first time the three men met together, the partners told Sherman, “We’ve got the next Kentucky Derby winner.” Sherman thought they were naively hopeful but admitted that he knew Chrome had something special the first time he saw the colt.

Chrome’s storied ascension to the Triple Crown included a win in the final stakes race at Hollywood Park in December 2013 and a victory in the San Felipe Stakes. After this race, the owners turned down a $6 million offer for 51% interest Chrome that would have mandated a change in silks and trainer. A few months later, California took the Santa Anita Derby by 5 1/4 lengths. The next stop was the first Saturday in May, where he was the morning line favorite.

Coburn turned 61 on Derby day. Sherman hadn’t come close to the Kentucky Derby since he was 18 years old and served as an exercise rider to 1955 winner Swaps, who was also California-bred. His owner Rex Ellsworth and trainer Mesh Tenney asked Sherman to accompany Swaps on the train from California to the Kentucky Derby.

Fifty-nine years later, Sherman returned to the Kentucky Derby with California Chrome. Before the race, Sherman visited Swaps’s grave, which is behind the Kentucky Derby Museum, and said a little prayer. Hours later, at 77, Sherman became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. 

California Chrome heightened talk of ending the 36-year Triple Crown drought by also taking the Preakness Stakes (G1). He fell short in the Belmont Stakes (G1) but went on to earn victories in races such as the Hollywood Derby, Dubai World Cup, and Pacific Classic Stakes (G1). California Chrome ultimately earned $14,752,650.

Sherman, now 84, has over 2,200 wins as a trainer and over $45 million in career earnings, but he will forever be known as California Chrome’s conditioner. He will retire at the conclusion of the Los Alamitos season which ends Dec. 12. He plans to travel with his wife a visit places he hasn’t been like Yellowstone and Ruidoso Downs.

California Chrome (Photo by Gustavson)