LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Art Sherman knows what it’s like to be at the Kentucky Derby with a brilliant colt that wins the race.
He just hasn’t done it in 59 years.
In 1955, Sherman was an 18-year-old exercise rider for Swaps, a California-bred chestnut colt who beat Nashua to wear the garland of roses on the first Saturday in May.
“I was just a kid then and just glad to be learning,” he said.
Now he’s 77 and bringing his own California-bred chestnut to Churchill Downs, where California Chrome is the likely favorite.
The colt with the modest pedigree and impressive resume traveled outside his home state for the first time Monday. He flew to Churchill Downs, where he’ll start getting used to the surface with a jog Tuesday.
“He’ll look around and know he’s at a racetrack and feel right at home,” Sherman said. “That’s the way he is.”
California Chrome has won his last four races by a combined 24 ¼ lengths, including the $1 million Santa Anita Derby.
“He’s the kind of horse you dream about,” Sherman said.
California Chrome finished first in the Derby points leaderboard that determines the maximum 20-horse field for the 1 ¼-mile race. He’s won six of 10 career starts and has already topped $1 million in earnings.
Pretty impressive for a colt from humble beginnings.
His mother, named Not For Love, won just one race. She was purchased for $8,000 by Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, a move that prompted a trainer to call them “dumb asses” for getting involved in racing.
Feeling inspired, Coburn and Martin named their operation DAP Racing, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. Their silks include an image of a donkey.
“We’re everyday people. I’m up at 4:30 every day going to work,” said Coburn, a press operator at a 13-employee Nevada company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and driver licenses.
Martin runs a laboratory in Sacramento, Calif., that tests high-reliability equipment, like car air bags or medical equipment, or as he says, “The kind where somebody dies if something goes wrong.”
Coburn and Martin’s partnership is based on handshake, and their wives are friends who enjoy the sport, too. The group came up with California Chrome’s name by drawing it out of a hat.
Sherman has his first Derby starter because Coburn and Martin contacted him about training their horse.
“He’s old school and he’s a regular guy,” Coburn said. “He doesn’t have a huge barn and he’s able to spend quality time with every horse he has in his barn.”
Sherman is based at Los Alamitos Racecourse in Orange County, Calif., 30 miles and a world away from Santa Anita, the mecca of racing in Southern California.
Once a former jockey and racing official, Sherman took out his trainer’s license in 1980. His son, Alan, assists him with California Chrome, easily the best horse that’s ever been in their barn.
“I’m very humbled to have a horse like this,” said the elder Sherman, whose personality is not unlike that of California Chrome. “He’s so easy going, laidback. Nothing seems to bother him.”
Sherman plans to tour California Chrome around Churchill Downs. He wants the colt to get used to the paddock, where he will be saddled Saturday, and the starting gate, where 20 fractious colts will line up.
“He gets anxious in the gate,” Sherman said. “He knows he’s got to come away from there running so we have to school him.”
He’ll probably slip California Chrome some of his favorite horse treat — Mrs. Pasture’s Paddock Cookies, made of molasses, corn and barley.
“I’ve had some,” Coburn said. “They’re good. Tastes like a granola bar.”
Come Saturday evening, Sherman, Coburn, Perry and jockey Victor Espinoza hope to be tasting victory.
“I know there’s always a question until they’ve done it, but I really think this horse will go a mile and a quarter, no problem,” Sherman said. “He’s doing everything right.”