With California Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman being thrust into the Kentucky Derby spotlight at age 77, so too will the great Swaps, whose meteoric career has been and will continue to be resurrected by Sherman, who was the immortal Cal-bred’s regular work rider and who accompanied the colt cross-country by train to Louisville, Ky. for the Derby, where he slept in the straw next to the horse. Swaps, of course, would put California on the map by winning the 1955 Run for the Roses under Bill Shoemaker defeating Belair Stud’s 6-5 favorite Nashua, becoming the first Cal-bred to win the Derby since Morvich in 1922.
Returning to California to a hero’s welcome, Swaps romped by 12 lengths in the Will Rogers Stakes at Hollywood Park, equaling the track record for a mile. In his next start, the Californian Stakes, Shoemaker was sitting out a suspension, and trainer Mesh Tenney gave the mount to Dave Erb, who guided the colt to a track and world record score over the previous year’s Kentucky Derby winner Determine and the top-class older horses Mister Gus and Rejected.
Erb would go on to win the following year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and finish a fast-closing second in the Preakness Stakes aboard Florida-bred Needles.
Erb, now 90, and his wife, have a 20-acre farm outside Saratoga and says he spends of lot of his time waiting for the golf courses to open. He still manages to play golf about four times a week and shoots in the low 80s. He always keeps busy working on the farm fixing fences and doing other chores and says he doesn’t have “an acre of pain.” During his career he amazingly did not suffer a single broken bone.
Sherman and Erb recently rehashed old times and their memories of Swaps, as well as Sherman’s magical journey with California Chrome.
Erb: How are you, Art?
Sherman: Very good, Dave, how are you? Are you gonna make it to the Derby or what?
Erb: Well, gosh no. I’d love to, by my traveling is very limited these days. I’ve got a few miles on me. I believe I’m the oldest living Kentucky Derby winning rider.
Sherman: I hear ya. I figured you might say that. I remember that Californian when you rode Swaps. I was back at the barn. You probably don’t remember me. I was just this young 18-year-old kid wanting to be a jockey.
Erb: So you galloped him quite a bit, huh?
Sherman: I did, but I worked him mostly. Chester White was the one who galloped him. He took a pretty good hold to gallop. On his two trips back East, I was there with him. I took him to the post quite a bit, too, with the pony.
Erb: Well, I tell you what. When I came out there to ride him, he gave me a big scare. I flew out all night and got there early in the morning. I asked Tenney, “Mesh, do you want me to come over and get on the horse this morning? He said, “No, I’ll see you in the paddock this afternoon.” So, I went back to the jock’s room and went to sleep, and got up and went to the paddock and they lifted me on. I reached down and said, “Holy Jesus, there’s no mane. There was about two or three strands of mane. If I had known this I would have told him to put a strap around that horse’s neck. I said, “I hope I can stay with him when we leave there.” It wasn’t only short, it was very thin.
Sherman: I know what you mean. Maybe when he was turned out, those horses chewed his mane off, you never know. I can’t remember that far back.
Blood-Horse: Did you two know each other back then?
Sherman: No, I don’t think we ever met, because I was just a young kid at the time and I stayed back at the barn. I probably watched the Californian from the (viewing) stand on the backside. They had a betting place back there, and we would bet a couple of bucks and watch the horses run.
Erb: By the way, Art, congratulations on having a real nice colt there. I tell you what; his last outing was really impressive.
Sherman: Yeah, I was talking to Eddie D. (Delahoussaye) in the box the other day. He’s been a good friend of mine for years. I said, “What do you think, Eddie”? And he says, “I want to tell you something; this horse in the Real McKoy.” And then Laiffit Pincay sent me an email saying he reminded him of Sham when he was riding him. That’s really nice to have two Hall of Famers telling you that you have a pretty darn good horse.”
Blood-Horse: Art, what’s it been like so far having all this thrust upon you at this stage of your career”
Sherman: Oh, God, I’ve done about 15 radio shows, about four television shows, and there’s more to come. I’ve got Sports Illustrated coming Thursday and Fox News coming tomorrow. It’s been wild and woolly, I can tell you that. It’s so nice having everyone in California backing us and going to Kentucky. It’s pretty cool. I call him the Rock Star and I’m his manager.
Blood-Horse: Dave, how did you wind up getting the mount on Swaps?
Erb: Actually, Shoemaker got set down for five days. Of course, I knew Mesh Tenney. In fact, before Swaps ran in the Derby, Shoemaker got hurt in the morning and it was questionable whether he was going to be able to ride in the Derby and I was sitting right behind Shoe in case something happened.
Sherman: You’re right, there was a little concern about that. I remember now.
Erb: So when Shoe got five days at Hollywood, I was at Washington Park riding and they contacted me, and I flew right out there.
Sherman: He was something else to ride, wasn’t he? He was a freaky horse.
Erb: Oh my gosh; it was unbelievable the power that guy had.
Sherman: Yeah, it was like being in a Model Cadillac and a Model A. That’s the best way to describe that horse.
Blood-Horse: Dave, did you have feel any pressure riding Swaps after he had won the Kentucky Derby and then romped in his next race?
Erb: I would say yes. I don’t know whether people realize it or not, but he was a real late foal running against older horses. The race was in June and he was just turning 3, and that’s awful early to hook top older horses. Determine had won the Derby the previous year, and Mister Gus was a good older horse who had a lot of speed.
Sherman: You got a good memory, Dave. Sometimes I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, and you’re doing pretty good.
Blood-Horse: Art, give us a brief travelogue on your train trip to Louisville.
Sherman: Swaps went first class and he was a great traveler. We traveled again the following winter to Florida. When we were in Kentucky, we’d figure-eight him bareback between the barns and all the hardboots went bananas. They were saying, “What in the world are these cowboys doing? What kind of horse is this?” By the time we went to Florida the next year they were already used to us; they didn’t care.
Erb: Hey, Art, here’s something else. I remember when Mesh Tenney first came to California. He had two real good fillies called Hubble Bubble and U Time, you remember those fillies?
Sherman: Yeah, I sure do. They both could run, both of them.
Erb: Well, they didn’t come in a regular van. It was an old cattle truck. They had to back up to a ditch and they jumped them off.
Sherman: I remember that. Everybody would go crazy nowadays. But that was a different era. You couldn’t do anything like that now and survive. It’s a whole new ballgame now, and they don’t make horses like that. Their bone structure was a lot different in those days than it is now.
Blood-Horse: How would you both describe the feeling of being on Swaps’ back?
Erb: I rode two of the best 3-year-olds in Swoon’s Son and Needles, and he was right there with those guys. Boy, I’ll tell you, he had power. He was one of the best horses I ever rode.
Sherman: That’s what happens to me now. I go in to a press conference and they ask me who I think is the better horse. How can you compare California Chrome to a horse who had six world records? All I say is, “He’s my Swaps. That’s all I know.” What else can I say? They put you on the spot a lot of times. I’m just hoping as a 4-year-old he could be like Swaps. I know right now he’s doing everything right and he’s running good. But I just go one race at a time.
Blood-Horse: Art, just wait until you get to Kentucky.
Sherman: Oh God, they’re all waiting for me. I’m gonna have a target on my back when I get there.
Erb: When are you gonna ship your horse there, Art?
Sherman: On the 28th. I’ve been training here at Los Alamitos. It’s a real nice all loam dirt track like we used to have years ago. I’m just gonna let him get all that California sunshine in. I don’t have to do much with him. I’ll blow him out a couple of half-miles. He just ran a mile and a eighth and I’m running him back in the Derby sooner than I usually do, and I’m just gonna have a fresh horse for that race, because I know he’s gonna need every ounce of strength he can get. Tom Proctor said he has a couple of extra stalls and invited me to stay in his barn, so that’s probably where I’ll go.
Erb: Well, when you get down there, the press is gonna be around and all the cameras. One day, Mr. (Hugh) Fontaine, the trainer of Needles, was sitting at the end of the barn and all the reporters had left. But there was one guy who had about a dozen cameras hanging around his neck. He comes up to Mr. Fontaine, and says, “Mr. Fontaine, would you put a shank on Needles and bring out and jog him; I want to get an action shot.” Mr. Fontaine always carried this big old cane with lots of knots on it, and he gets up and says, “I’ll show you some action,” and he takes a swing at this guy with his cane. The guy lost cameras and everything.”
Erb: It looks like (California Chrome) came out of his race real good.
Sherman: He did. To be honest with you, he was full of himself today. It’s pretty remarkable. It was the second fastest Santa Anita Derby and he was being pulled up the last 70 yards, so I feel good about it. I don’t want to get too anxious, but he’s won his last four starts by over 25 lengths and that’s kind of awesome. You rode a lot of good horses, so you know what it’s like when a horse that can draw off turning for home and beat a bunch of nice horses. I’m just enjoying the ride right now. But I’m getting a little nervous to be honest with you. I watch him like a hawk. I got 24-hour guards on him, and it’s getting to the nitty gritty now.
Blood-Horse: Art, It must be reassuring to have your family involved, with Alan and Steve.
Sherman: It’s family oriented and it’s great to have them part of it. My youngest son (Alan) has my back; he’s my assistant trainer here, and my oldest son has got a nice string up in Northern California. He took over my barn when I left and he’s done a great job. He’s the second leading trainer up there. It going to be fun to have them all there at the Derby, and I just hope we can have a victory dance afterward.
Blood-Horse: Dave, getting back to Swaps, did Mesh give you any instructions?
Erb: Actually, no. He said there was no use giving instructions. We knew there was speed with Mister Gus in there. Johnny Longden was riding him. He said to me as we were coming out of the jock’s room, “I suppose you’re gonna need some pace, Dave.” I told him, “I don’t know, John, use your own judgment, ‘cause I’m liable to run right by you at any time.”
Sherman: ‘Ol Longden, he was tough, I can tell you that. He was something else. I always got a kick out of him. He went on to train Majestic Prince to win the Derby and Preakness. Oh, boy, I’ll tell you, he was a good-looking horse. I remember seeing him after they bought him, and thought, “Wow, he is something else.”
Blood-Horse: Art, What was the Tenney/Ellsworth barn like in those days?
Sherman: We had a lot of good horses. We had El Drag who set a world’s record, and numerous stakes winners. It was a pretty hot barn at one time. Once Khaled (sire of Swaps) started producing them horses he had multiple stakes winners. I think he was a great stud, with Hyperion blood, and they got lucky getting that horse from the Aga Khan. It was a great move. But I was sad to find out years later they had to borrow money to bury him. That really broke my heart. Mesh was such a great horseman. He taught me a lot. He was the hardest working man I’ve ever been around. He shoed his own horses, then went to the ranch and broke yearlings all day long. He was a workaholic. I was closer to Mesh than I was to Rex. I lived at the barn and had my own tack room. It was quite a great experience. A lot of riders couldn’t hack it and bailed out on us.
Blood-Horse: How did you get the job with Mesh?
Sherman: I didn’t know nothin’ about a horse and people told me those guys will help you. So I just went over there and applied for the job, and I was told to come back in a month. I did, and I started at the ranch and went through the breeding season and learned to break yearlings. I was there for a year and a half starting from the bottom and did just about everything. Then I went to the racetrack and it was just a matter of perseverance. They eventually leased my contract out and I stayed back East for nine years, and rode all told for 23 years. I had an OK career; never a superstar, but always made a living. From there I went into training. The last horse I rode won and the first horse I saddled won.
Blood-Horse: Thank you so much guys. This was a lot of fun.
Sherman: Well, God bless you, Dave, you’re doing great and it’s been a pleasure talking to you. If I make it to Saratoga one day, we can hook up.
Erb: You betcha. We’ll have you over for dinner.
Sherman: That sounds like a plan.
A special thanks to Marilyn Lane of Saratoga War Horse for all her help setting this up.