Favorite California Chrome steps toward Preakness

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Art Sherman was walking back from the track with the Preakness favorite Thursday morning and couldn’t help thinking about where he’d been and how he’d gotten there.

People send him fan mail. His horse’s name is in lights on the entance sign at Los Alamitos Race Course in California. He gets crab-cake advice from locals and out-of-towners. He signs autographs. People want his life story. He’s got a lucky suit.

The 77-year-old trainer began with a California-bred 2-year-old who started humbly enough in state-bred company at Hollywood Park. He lost that debut in April, then won May 17 (a year to the day of the Preakness), lost again in June, took a state-bred stakes at Del Mar. The chestnut with the four white feet lost twice more as a 2-year-old, once on the Breeders’ Cup undercard at Santa Anita Nov. 1, before winning the King Glorious Stakes for California-breds in late December. And he’s still winning, the streak reaching five with the Kentucky Derby triumph May 3.

“The first of the year, if you’d have said I would be here talking about winning the (Kentucky) Derby I’d have said, ‘Ah, you’re kidding me,’ ” Sherman said Thursday morning. “That was so far-fetched from my mind. I was thinking of the California Derby.”

Then he was thinking about the San Felipe, the Santa Anita Derby and now the Preakness. California Chrome rides a five-race winning streak in the $2 million classic, the 12th of 13 races on Saturday’s card with a probable post time of 6:18 p.m. California Chrome galloped fluidly Thursday morning and stood in the gate, all business. Gone was the looking around and whinnying he did Tuesday. Wearing a Sherman Racing jacket and a Kentucky Derby cap, Sherman stood on the track and peered into the fog for his horse. Off the turn came California Chrome, his long blaze serving as something of a fog light for the eyes turned his direction. The son of Lucky Pulpit galloped past, straight and true and off into the mist again.

Later, Sherman talked about his horse’s development.

“Don’t underestimate this horse,” he said. It wasn’t boasting or trash talk or anything else. It was a statement.

It meant don’t let the humble beginnings (California-breds are not exactly common sights on the Triple Crown trail), the small-time outfit, rookie owners/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, or anything else fool you. California Chrome is a runner with speed on demand. He races near the front, accelerates away from rivals and then coasts home. Jockey Victor Espinoza had him close to relatively slow fractions in the Derby, and had the race won with a 5-length lead in the stretch.

“He kind of moves away from these horses for a sixteenth of a mile,” said Sherman. “He can go with the best and he’s kind of push-button.”

That doesn’t mean Sherman won’t worry. No matter who it is, the trainer of the Derby winner always frets – racing luck, health, weather, traffic. The concerns are many, though Sherman thinks his horse looks and acts well. In an example of the nature of the business, he and his assistant/son Alan put out a media statement after California Chrome coughed after his gallop Thursday. It’s nothing to worry about, they said, but they were worrying already. Did he eat? Did he drink? Are his feet cool? How do those tendons feel? Like most racehorses, California Chrome gets his temperature taken frequently. That’s what it’s like.

In a world without a Triple Crown, California Chrome would be in his stall at Los Alamitos resting up for a race in June maybe. Instead he’s at Pimlico, getting ready for the shortest race-to-race turnaround in his 11-start career.

“I like a little bit more time between races, I can’t help it,” Sherman said. “I know it’s tradition. You have to be a super horse on the Triple Crown trail, to me. This in two weeks, then in three weeks it’s the mile and a half (of the Belmont Stakes). It’s tough on a horse. It takes a certain horse that has the ability to do this. I’m just hoping it’s mine.”

Pimlico Preakness News

The Preakness field.