When a horse gets to a big race without encountering any problems, the backstretch lingo is "not a straw in his path." In 1955, on the way to his first Kentucky Derby, young Art Sherman was covered with straw on a four-day journey from California.
Sherman rode in a railroad car from Los Angeles to Louisville with future Hall of Famer Swaps. Rank has its privileges, even between species, so the 3-year-old colt had first choice over the 18-year-old exercise rider about where they would sleep in the piled hay. Ah, the clacking of steel wheels and the smell of horse manure as you greet the dawn.
"Oh, yes, that was the good old days. It was me and the groom, the two of us in a sleeping bag, and Swaps on one side," the jovial Sherman said recently. "He was such a cool horse that I never thought about him ever trying to roll over or do anything. He was a kick to be around. He didn't have a mean part in his body.
"He reminds me so much of my horse, his demeanor. They're people kind of horses."
Sherman was referring to California Chrome, the heavy favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. Fifty-nine years later, after training more than 2,100 winners since 1979, the 77-year-old finally returns to America's most famous race, hopeful his leggy chestnut colt can emulate Swaps.
California Chrome, 6-for-10 with earnings of $1,134,850, is undefeated and unchallenged since December, dominating four stakes by a combined 241/4 lengths for jockey Victor Espinoza.
"It's been a great experience," Sherman said. "A young horse comes to you and you have no idea he'll become the horse he is right now. I've never gotten so much publicity in my life."
Sherman said California Chrome's 51/4-length runaway April 5 in the Santa Anita Derby made the former jockey consider a comeback. "I haven't been on a horse in at least 10 years," he said, "but I told Victor that if he keeps winning by that far, I might take my license back out."
California Chrome was foaled in Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley, an area known for producing fruits and vegetables, not Derby favorites. His owners are self-proclaimed "simple working-class folk," Steve Coburn and Perry Martin of DAP Racing.
Coburn works for a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and ID cards. Martin's field is consumer security. They bought Love the Chase for $8,000, paid a measly $2,500 to mate her with Lucky Pulpit, and out came California Chrome. Coburn said they recently rejected a $6 million offer for 51 percent of the first horse they bred.
"I had a dream about this colt two weeks before he was born," Coburn said. "I told my wife, 'It's going to be a colt. He's going to be flashy with four white stocking feet and a big bald face,' and his baby pictures look just like that. I told them he was going to be something special."
Besides predicting victory in the Derby, Coburn text-messaged Sherman a list of four races he targeted, and the colt swept them. Destiny also decreed that Derby Day shall be Coburn's 61st birthday. Whoa, now that's eerie.