California Chrome: Clancy’s 2014 Eclipse Winner

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Reprinted from the July 2014 edition of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine.

Art Sherman walked up the slope from the Pimlico Race Course stable area to the track and thought about six decades in racing, the van rides, the nights sleeping in the straw, the wins, the losses, the work, the worry. Somehow alone amidst the NBC cameras and assorted hoopla of Baltimore’s rite of spring, he thought about his father’s barbershop, his family, Mesh Tenney, Swaps, riding races in the cold at Bowie. Then he spoke his mind.

“I never thought of this. I was just training my horses and hoping I’d get lucky someday.”

He smiled when he said it, and took a deep breath while coming to terms with how lucky he’d gotten. His horse, the California-bred with roundabout roots through Maryland, Idaho, Kentucky and his home state, stood on the verge of history. Sherman, a former exercise rider and jockey, a successful if hardly renowned trainer from the West Coast, stood with him.

Before them waited a stuffed grandstand, an even more jammed infield where Grammy winner Lorde had just wrapped up a set. Gleeful fans shouted encouragement along the last steps of the horsepath. With all that came history, opportunity, expectation and pressure. Every year, when the calendar turns to mid-May, Thoroughbred racing latches on to a new star – the Derby winner.

“This is the one,” the racing nation speaks during Preakness Week. “Surely, this is the horse who will win it all, the one who will end this chase for the Triple Crown. This horse, right now, will erase all the pain, the almosts, the wouldas and couldas.

Art Sherman knew all that. His horse looked the part-a shiny chestnut with four white feet and a wide blaze, a five-race winning streak, a dominating Derby win and a backstory worthy of a Hollywood script. The next scene was up to him.

The colt, a son of unheralded stallion Lucky Pulpit and the less-heralded Mary-land-bred Not For Love mare Love the Chase, dominated the Kentucky Derby-G1 by 1 3/4 lengths while geared down the last 50 yards and scared away all but two foes from the May 3 classic. Two weeks later, on a sunny and cool-in-the-shade May 17 in Baltimore, California Chrome met nine opponents in the 139th Preakness Stakes-G1.

Then dispatched them with power, speed, authority. No longer was this an underdog story of unlikely success on the Triple Crown trail. No longer was this an old man riding out a feel-good final chapter to his racing career. No longer was this a fluke, a fairytale, mere happenstance.

No, this was very much the real thing. And everybody knew it.

A Sublime Preakness

Seven Preakness starters were saddled on the Pimlico turf course, much to the delight of a record 123,469 on hand. Waiting patiently, California Chrome stood like a kid’s pony in cross ties while saddled. He watched the action, got a little studdish (the filly Ria Antonia was three spots down) but never lost his cool. They say horses don’t know their odds, but this one acted in every way the favorite.

His trainer, quiet yet confident, talked up his horse late in the week at Pimlico.

“Don’t underestimate this horse,” he warned. The comment meant don’t let the humble roots, the California-bred label, the first-time Derby trainer and all the rest fool you. Sherman’s horse belonged, like any other Derby winner.

Once in the Pimlico gate, he showed the slightest hint of impatience from stall three when Social Inclusion rocked the gate violently five slots to the outside. As the assistant starters got the second choice settled, California Chrome bobbed his head to the left six times – I. Want. To. Go. Right. Now.

And then they were off. With Victor Espinoza aboard, the Derby winner lowered himself, and broke like a rodeo cowboy’s roping horse. In 10 quick, hammering strides he led them all while easing off the rail and in front of Ring Weekend. Just as quickly, the chestnut colt came back to Espinoza as Pablo Del Monte made a play for the lead. California Chrome let him go and drifted another path off the rail, second with cover. Crossing the wire with a lap to go, Ria Antonia accelerated and rolled past California Chrome and to Pablo Del Monte.

The move could have created a pocket, and trouble, for Espinoza if Ria Antonia had stayed alongside. Instead it was another ingredient in a fluid, changing race.

“This race was a little complicated,” said Espinoza of the early decisions. “I saw another horse [Pablo Del Monte] take the lead, I’m second, then [Ria Antonia] wants to go. I have to steady, steady and I have to hope and make the right decision and hope for the best. Then, I’m sitting third and I think it’s perfect.”

The leaders reached a quarter-mile in 23.56 seconds. California Chrome drafted in third, just behind and outside. To his inside came General a Rod, followed by Social Inclusion and Dynamic Impact. Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia ran a half in :46.85. Bayern found trouble early and not much more. Seventh in the Derby, third choice Ride On Curlin broke from the outside and settled well back with only the deep closer Kid Cruz behind.

Up the Pimlico backstretch, Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia traded strides through 6 furlongs in 1:11.06. California Chrome was third and comfortable. Social Inclusion probed on the favorite’s outside and reached California Chrome’s girth. Espinoza took a peek to his right, saw the momentum building and shifted his hands. Like a hot rod coming off the line in Modesto, California Chrome responded and went after the lead. Ten seconds after that look by his jockey, California Chrome was in front – hounded by Social Inclusion, as Ria Antonia backed up quickly and Pablo Del Monte stayed only a bit longer.

“I had to start early because the outside horse was pushing me,” said Espinoza of Social Inclusion, who was making just his fourth career start. “I thought I had the perfect position, but when the outside horse attacked me, I had to open it up at that point.”

Leaving the five-sixteenths pole, California Chrome led Social Inclusion by a determined jowl. Behind them loomed Ride On Curlin, a menacing presence if the top two showed any signs of weakness. Social Inclusion cracked at the quarter pole, coming up empty and drifting outward slightly as California Chrome found more and kicked away toward the rail. He quickly opened 3 lengths, dispatching Social Inclusion and ending Ride On Curlin’s bid.

California Chrome stayed straight, strong and stubborn to win by 1 1/2 lengths without feeling Espinoza’s whip anywhere but on the right shoulder. The winner covered 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.84, the fastest time since Big Brown in 2008. Ride On Curlin ran away from the rest to finish second, 6 1/2 lengths clear of Social Inclusion, who was a head in front of late charging General a Rod, who had been shuffled back on the far turn.

Espinoza loved his horse’s energy in the stretch.

“I had to start moving at the half mile pole, which is tough for a horse to start moving early and keep going all the way to the end,” said the jockey, who won the 2002 Derby and Preakness with War Emblem. “It’s not easy. And today, California Chrome proved he can move. Even if he’s a little early, he still has it.”

The win produced bedlam from the crowd and even more from the winning team. Steve Coburn, co-owner/breeder with Perry Martin, cheered from the boxes while wearing a purple shirt, green tie, 10-gallon cowboy hat and his emotions on the sleeves of a tan suit.

After his horse reached the finish line, Coburn sat in stunned glee, kissed his family, hugged Sherman. Later he praised Pimlico management, smooched his horse on the nose, learned some Baltimore-ese “hon” and shook hands with half of Maryland while not spilling a drop of post-race refreshment on the way to the infield winner’s circle.

“My nerves are OK, but my knees are weak,” he said moments before the race. Afterward, he was a joyous, tearful mess of a man wiping fogged glasses with a blue bandana, loving every second of a win in a $1.5 million race with a homebred from an $8,000 mare. After attending the Derby, Martin stayed away from the Preakness, leaving his partner to tell the world what it felt like.

“I don’t know how to explain how I feel within my heart and soul,” said Coburn. “It’s hard for me because I get very emotional about it. But I honestly believe this horse is America’s horse.”

Down by the winner’s circle, assistant trainer Alan Sherman watched the Preakness from a narrow walkway with groom Raul Rodriguez, Preakness security guard Damon Lann and a handful of others. The view was awful, but it was the best seat in the house. As the horses warmed up, Sherman stood with his toes in the Pimlico dirt, his hands on a metal gate, and tried to smoke a cigarette. He tried to send a text or two. He tried to make small talk. Very little of it worked.

When the starting gate clanged open, Sherman stilled himself and watched – live as his horse galloped by the first time, on the partially obscured (by a Longines clock) infield big screen the rest of the way. At the top of the stretch, Sherman let loose. “Come on, Chrome. Come on, Chrome. Come on,” he urged as the horse cut the corner in front. Rodriguez barely spoke. Baltimore City Detention Center guard Lann, who joined the team for Preakness Week and spent 12-hour shifts with the Derby winner, was the emotional one, barking “He’s making his move, he’s making his move,” in Sherman’s right ear.

And then Sherman let it out. California Chrome hit the sixteenth pole and the man responsible for his everyday care leaned out a step too far and almost fell on the track as the one-railed metal gate swung open. Sherman pumped a fist, smiled, cried, watched, raised his arms high as if signaling a touchdown and nearly met his horse at the finish line as everyone tumbled out behind him. On the track, they were a scrum of suits, sundresses, hats, black-and-white security uniform, halter, lead shank and emotion.

“He does that, every race,” said Art Sherman of his son. “He ends up on the track. I guess he can’t hold it in anymore. What a moment.”

A Defining Derby

The Shermans were getting used to moments.

Two weeks earlier, in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, California Chrome also broke sharply and established position near the front of the unwieldy 19-horse field. The 5-2 favorite was third after a quarter mile, out of trouble and behind Uncle Sigh and Chitu. They stayed that way up the backstretch and through a half in :47.37.

Espinoza sat still on the turn as Samraat ranged alongside – making it four across the track with 3 furlongs to run. A furlong later, after a mile in 1:37.45, there was only one. California Chrome overwhelmed Chitu and Uncle Sigh, shrugged off Samraat and turned a narrow advantage into an insurmountable one. He was 5 lengths clear at the eighth pole, all but the same at the sixteenth. Espinoza looked behind him eight strides from the finish, stood tall in the stirrups and pumped his fist. The early gallop-out minimized the margin, but did little to erase the doubt.

Commanding Curve rallied from well back to finish second with Danza third. The winner covered 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.66, considered slow by many but plenty fast enough to collect the $1,417,800 payday and become the fourth California-bred to win the Derby and first since Decidedly in 1962. The winner went off the favorite, but didn’t command the pre-race attention of others with similar form.

Early discussion centered on the favorite, but also focused on the chances of Wood Memorial-G1 winner Wicked Strong, four horses (led by Arkansas Derby-G1 winner Danza) from Todd Pletcher’s barn and plenty of others.

A bettor plunked down somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million to win on Candy Boy moments before post time, slashing his odds from 16-1 to 9-1 and pushing California Chrome from 2-1 to 5-2.

“Sometimes you don’t get a lot of respect,” said Art Sherman afterward. “We’re in Kentucky. You know most of the Derby winners are bred here. When you get a California-bred horse, I think it was 40 years since the last one. I think they say, ‘Well, you didn’t beat nobody.’ You know what I mean? There were a lot of good horses in the Santa Anita Derby.”

As he did two weeks later at Pimlico, Sherman sounded optimistic, proud, ready before the Derby.

“I was very confident,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen some fabulous horses throughout my life. You know when you have a good horse. We all know bad races, luck can happen to you. I’ve been on that end of it, too. I knew my horse could run, and I knew he’d be the horse to beat once we got him here.”

Start at the Beginning

Art Sherman was born in Brooklyn in 1937, but his family moved to California when he was 7. A customer in his father’s barbershop suggested Art (who stands 5-foot-2) think about becoming a jockey and thus began a life with horses. Sherman went to work for California horsemen Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney at 17 and was the exercise rider for 1955 Derby winner Swaps. Sherman rode in a railroad boxcar to Kentucky for the race, sleeping alongside the future Hall of Famer on a bed of straw. Sherman didn’t even make the winner’s circle.

He became a jockey in 1957 and rode for 20 years, including a brief stop at Maryland’s Bowie Race Course where he accepted a trophy from then Vice-President Richard Nixon. Sherman retired in 1979 to become a trainer. He won one race that first year, and set out building a stable and a career in California racing.

While not on the level of Charlie Whittingham, Jerry Hollendorfer or other West Coast luminaries, Sherman found plenty of success. He trained Lykatill Hil, a multiple graded stakes winner and earner of $893,270 in the 1990s. Sherman won at least 40 races a year from 1984-2007, topping 200 that last year and passing 2,000 for his career, before scaling back. His stable makes 100 or so starts a year, wins about 15, though he’d already reached that victory total by June this year.

Now, the Sherman stable is based at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County. Alan Sherman is his father’s assistant. Another son, Steve, trains in northern California. Their mother, Faye, used to work in the gift shop and as a mutuel clerk at Bay Meadows near San Francisco.

Sherman became the oldest trainer to win a Kentucky Derby, in his first try, and called it an honor to bring the Preakness favorite to Pimlico.

“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 two days before the Preakness. “That was so far-fetched from my mind. I was thinking of the California Derby.”

California Chrome came to Sherman with a brash statement from Coburn, who told Art the horse would win the Kentucky Derby. The comment was unlikely, dreamy, silly even, but even more so considering the path California Chrome took to the barn.

His dam, Love the Chase, was bred in Maryland by Bowman and Higgins Stable, who sold her through consignor Cary Frommer at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale in 2008. Granddam Chase It Down (by Polish Numbers) was also bred in Maryland, by Tom and Chris Bowman, and raced for Higgins and Bowman Stable and trainer Donald Barr.

California trainer Greg Gilchrist signed the ticket for Love the Chase at $30,000 and the daughter of Not For Love went to the West Coast to race. She began with three losses and a cheap maiden-claiming win for Gilchrist and a large group of owners. When the partnership opted to disband, Coburn and Martin bought out the others. Love the Chase finished last in two claiming starts for the new owners, who jokingly called themselves the Dumb Ass Partners and put a donkey on their silks. Then she became a broodmare. The rookie Thoroughbred breeders say they saw something in her.

Nevada resident Coburn, who works at a factory that makes magnetic strips for credit cards, and Californian Martin, who runs a testing laboratory in Sacramento, settled on the stallion Lucky Pulpit, who stood at Harris Farms in Coalinga. Bred in Kentucky and raced by Larry and Marianne Williams, the son of Pulpit went through his early paces at his breeders’ Tree Top Ranches in Parma, Idaho. The place has been compared to Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky and is every bit a Thoroughbred nursery, even if it’s in an unlikely place. Lucky Pulpit won three of 22 starts and was briefly on the 2004 Derby trail before a throat infection derailed his career. In the end, he battled breathing issues and was reduced to a turf sprinter. He won a stakes in 2005 and placed in another in 2006, before being retired with a fractured ankle.

The Williamses liked their horse so much, they wanted to see him become a sire. When the offers were underwhelming, they got into that side of the business. Idaho’s breeding industry is tiny, but the Williamses are big supporters of the California program and sent Lucky Pulpit to Harris.

He entered stud in 2007, and was the state’s leading freshman sire of 2010. That first crop included seven winners bred by his owners. His 161 foals include 73 percent winners from starters led by 2012 Kentucky Derby starter and $737,092 earner Rousing Sermon, stakes winner of more than $500,000 Luckarack and now California Chrome. The once $2,500 stud fee is listed as private.

Much was made before the Derby about California Chrome’s sprint-oriented pedigree, but Tree Top equine manager Dan Kiser scoffed. He raised Lucky Pulpit, and liked him from the start.

“I was the first guy on his back,” he said. “At the time I thought ‘This might be the best horse I ever throw a leg over.’ As it turned out, he probably was.”

Lucky Pulpit didn’t act like a sprinter, didn’t train like a sprinter. He wound up a sprinter, out of pure necessity. California Chrome’s sire’s family includes distance influences A.P. Indy, Cozzene, Caro (Ire) and *Princequillo plus Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew. None make you think sprinter.

Coburn and Martin got a $500 discount to send their mare to Lucky Pulpit. She produced a colt, born Feb. 18, 2011, at Harris. Before the colt was born, Coburn dreamed of a chestnut with four white feet and a special destiny. The Derby, the Preakness, the Triple Crown, something, the colt with the wide blaze was going to be special. Coburn said he knew it all along, and told as many people as he could.

“I’ve said it a hundred times or a thousand times, you’ve got to dream, if you’re willing to ride the dream out, they will come true for you,” said Coburn after the Derby. “We’re living proof of it.”

Horse On the Way

California Chrome spent his early days at Harris, and went to Art Sherman at Hollywood Park as a 2-year-old. Sherman worked him early, and got an immediate positive response. The debut came April 26 with a second in state-bred company at Hollywood. He won the next time, one year to the day from the Preakness, and added a stakes victory at Del Mar July 31.

Open company beckoned and California Chrome finished sixth in the Del Mar Futurity-G1, a race won by another California-bred Tamarando (a Williams homebred). California Chrome finished sixth again in the Golden State Juvenile on the Breeders’ Cup undercard Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.

Sherman replaced longtime Maryland-based jockey Alberto Delgado with Victor Espinoza after that race, and California Chrome won his next six – from the King Glorious Stakes on closing day at Hollywood Park Dec. 22 right through the Preakness. Along the way came the California Cup Derby, San Felipe Stakes-G2 and Santa Anita Derby-G1 at Santa Anita.

“The first time I rode him, I thought he was an amazing horse but not the Kentucky Derby winner,” Espinoza said before the Preakness. “After I rode him in the San Felipe, I thought he was something special, he’s a tremendous talent and he loves to run, I was impressed. Over the years I’ve ridden some good horses but California Chrome, he’s really impressed me.”

The jockey had something to do with it, but Sherman paid credit to his horse too.

“Horses change in conformation and everything,” said the trainer before the Preakness. “I look at him now and see how much he grew up. Sometimes he amazes me how much he’s filled out and he’s really becoming a nice looking horse. It’s like watching a kid grow up.”

Alan Sherman agreed: “He turned into a man when he turned 3. He got bigger and stronger. His confidence level went up. It was a pretty big transition from 2 to 3 with him.”

Former Marylander Willie Delgado, Alberto’s brother, joined the team as exercise rider and like everybody else played at least a small role in the success.

“Willie is real quiet,” said Alan Sherman. “The horse will pretty much train himself. When he’s really on the bit he goes a little bit faster and Willie doesn’t fight him. He just lets him train. Willie’s done a great job with him.”

When Hollywood’s stable area closed in January, the Sherman horses moved to Los Alamitos, once strictly a Quarter Horse track, and quickly became part of the family. California Chrome thrived in workouts over the track and management and fans embraced the rising star. He was featured in commercials. Fans were invited to sign posters in the grandstand. Special events were created for the Triple Crown races. The digital message board outside the main gate has repeatedly had a California Chrome theme including the simple “Home of Superstar California Chrome” before the Derby. After the Derby, fan mail addressed to Art Sherman, Los Alamitos Race Course, reached the trainer.

“They feel like it’s their horse,” Sherman said of the public. “He’s got such a following. You ought to see the mail I got at home-15, 20 cards and letters and they keep coming. One gal sent me a lucky dollar. I still got it. I’m holding on to that. I won’t spend that. She said, ‘This dollar is for good luck.’ Isn’t that wild? They just love the horse and the story behind it all.”