Art Sherman, Dave Erb "Swap" Stories

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.





 

25 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Windolin

Oh gosh Steve, this is just the best. I hope someone tells Mr Sherman that a whole lot of people on the East Coast supports him and California Chrome. Just have to love stories like this one. This is the heart warming side of racing..the back stories. I had tears in my eyes reading this.

13 Apr 2014 10:17 PM
Dr Drunkinbum

Fabulous. I was mezmerized. It would be great to have more of these types of dialogues here. I had already started becoming a fan of California Chrome after going back and watching his replays and reading more about the connections, the story, and realizing that the lineage of the horse is something to celebrate and root for also. It's all just really special, and a horse, and trainer, and owners that will be easy to root for. Thank you Art and Dave and Marilyn and Bloodhorse for this special treat.

13 Apr 2014 10:37 PM
Racingfan

So awesome!  Thank you for this!  I LOVE hearing about the old days!

13 Apr 2014 10:42 PM
prudofrompuertorico

WOW !!!!! What a story.

13 Apr 2014 11:36 PM
The Deacon

Wonderful dialogued here, priceless..............thank you to all folks involved in putting this together.

I will never grow tired reading about Swaps and the stories surrounding him.

14 Apr 2014 4:27 AM
Eliza

Sherman, you wrote "It’s a whole new ballgame now, and they don’t make horses like that." I would be fascinated to have more specifics on this. These days horses are more delicate and have more catastrophic injuries than ever before. WHY IS THIS SO? What would be the purpose of breeding horses to be less sturdy? Speed is great, but not when it risks horses' health and safety.

14 Apr 2014 8:21 AM
Warlaine

Thanks isn't good enough for this article. I selfishly wished it would never end. What great gems of history past. The mane,bone structure and Mr.Mesh, and of course Swaps.

14 Apr 2014 10:30 AM
Jean in Chicago

I'm also very glad Saratoga War Horse got a mention.  (Please look it up and donate!)

14 Apr 2014 1:25 PM
Gollykeeper

This interview was pure gold, or maybe Chrome would be a better word. :-) Like Warlaine said, I wished it would never end. Thank you!

14 Apr 2014 1:30 PM
ballou62

The story about Swaps brought back many pleasant memories.  I was 15 years old  at the time.  On opening

day at CD, Swaps was entered in a 6 furlong prep race.

He won by a wide margin and continued to work.  I was sitting well past the finish line.  To this day I have never seen such power flash by me.  Caveat, I never saw Secretariat in the flesh.  Luckily, a seat in a third floor box at the sixteenth pole became available for the derby.  I bet the princely sum of $2 on his nose.  They didn't check ids in days.  Swaps put Nashua away at the

top of the stretch.  What a great day!

If it wasn't for his troublesome foot,  I believe he would  be up there in the same stratosphere as Secretariat.

Presently, I volunteer at the Kentucky Derby Museum.  I pass his grave often and it always gives me a happy memory and smile.

14 Apr 2014 1:49 PM
Aluminaut

Steve, what a great report. When was the Golden Age of racing? Is the Sword still in the stone?  Maybe the time of Camelot ever-present as long as there are promising horses in the barn and field.

Bloodhorse, how about sending Steve to Los Alamitos before he goes to Churchill?  Would be a heck of a story.

14 Apr 2014 2:41 PM
trackjack

Thanks Steve and Marilyn Lane for setting this up.  Another "nuts and bolts" interview putting us inside the training and running of these beautiful creatures.  

Agree with Eliza on Art's remarks about the bone structure being different.  They bred a much stouter horse back then.

Really enjoyed Dave's story of Mr. Hugh Fontaine and the camera guy.  What a visual!  Thanks again!

14 Apr 2014 3:27 PM
peck farm

I worked for Ellsworth and Tenney and was the "new"trainer when Tenney retired.I won races with Rex's horses that Mesch had trained and I had galloped. They did not have money problems. The bad press for these two one-of-a-kind HORSEMEN is what breaks my heart. We sat at Santa Anita one day with Bill Christine from the Times to have him write the truth in the newspaper about all the lies and bad publicity. He listened, he took notes; he never published it. It broke Mesch and Rex's heart.

14 Apr 2014 4:17 PM
Dr. Marty

Marilyn Lane is such a great help for anything that boosts racing—like this wonderful column. Thanks to both of you.

14 Apr 2014 6:08 PM
Zinn

That was absolutely fantastic. I could listen to these guys for twenty more pages. Do an encore please..

14 Apr 2014 8:56 PM
BelmontBarb

Steve,

  Beautiful. Touching. Sensitive. Emotional. Extraordinary.

This brings recollection of a few whom "slept in the hay", watching their colt or filly making sure they did not hurt themselves or someone else attempt to do it in the middle of the night. It is when the trainer was the night-watchman and the guardian of his upmost interest and ever present.

This story is about a trip through history that has gently moved through time outwitting technology of the new thoroughbred world; it is one that is beyond explanation and a blessing for Art Sherman, California Chrome and Dave Erb for they are already in the "Winners Circle". They represent the the core and the spirit of racing. (What a documentary this would make "Spirit of Racing",The story of Art Sherman and California Chrome and Dave Erb - or "Sleeping in the Hay").

"It's a whole new ballgame now, they don't make horses like that"...NO, they don't ~ (re:post by Eliza)and that of course draws and deserves much attention.  I don't know how many of these fragile beauties today could jump off the back of a cattle truck without injury.  Bone structure is very much different as is muscle mass; and breeding is much different. It has become a science instead of "natural instinct".  We have "producers" taking credit of making fine and (hopefully) durable equine with amazing speed factors even if they lack the stamina.  This is the main reason why the thoroughbred formation, appearance and endurance has changed.  We seek the perfection but continue to fail in the area of success of a dominant delivery along the trails of tracks.  Trainers have production lines, Rx's and egos; breeders are in business; owners are pre-occupied with winner circles and prestige and stories like this are few.

These men are the backbone of racing, teachers in the thoroughbred world, tough and durable and deserving of every respect.  They hold the "stamina" we need to regain in every aspect of racing.

Thanks Steve and everyone~

thrilled to be "Hangin with Haskin'"

14 Apr 2014 10:09 PM
sysonby

Fabulous, thanks Steve

14 Apr 2014 10:38 PM
Jermon

peck farm

I assume the bad press you refer to is in reference to Ellsworth's breeding operation. As I recall, it was reported he had something like 400 brood mares turned out in several states and Mexico. When some of them were found to be doing poorly he was cited for animal neglect. When discussing the failure of the breeding operation, he claimed it was because he had over bred to Khaled. Was it because of that or poor pre-natal care?

Although his breeding operation may have been a failure overall, he did breed some darn good horses after Swaps and Candy Spots. Two that I recall doing very well in the upper tier of racing were Olden Times and The Scoundrel, neither of which was sired by Khaled. He sold the latter to some european for half a million dollars, which was a tidy sum of money back then. That and the purses won were  enough to keep Ellsworth out of the poor house.

15 Apr 2014 1:22 AM
Jermon

Perhaps because of his youthful enthusiasm, Shoemaker was pretty vocal in his pediction of the outcome of the 1955 Derby. He kept saying if Swaps did not win he would eat his hat, which he didn't have to do. It was the most vocal I recall him being. His enthusiasm may have been tempered by what happened later that year.

When Swaps lost his match race against Nashua, it wasn't necessarily because Nashua was the better horse. No, it was because Eddie Arcaro, the master, the sly old fox, outsmarted his much younger rival. When the gates popped open it was  Arcaro who came out whooping and hollering and sending Nashua to the front, which took every one by surprise. It was supposd to be the other way around. The Shoe laid back a length and half, or so. Nashua, having been allowed to run well within himself had enough left to sustain his advantage when set down in the drive to the wire.

Perhaps in an act of atonement, Arcaro took Shoemaker under his wing when he moved his tack to New York. Apparently, he tutored him in more than the fine points of race riding. There was an incident when they disappeared for three days. Not even their agents knew where they were. It was later uncovered that they had been to Havana, which at the time it was wide open. It was doubtful that had gone to assess the difference in racing between the island and the mainland.

I'll be rooting for you Art. Not only are we both originally from Brooklyn, we share the same birth date.

15 Apr 2014 2:12 AM
Pedigree Ann

Eliza - this quote answers part of your question -

"I’ve been training here at Los Alamitos. It’s a real nice all loam dirt track like we used to have years ago."

Nice all loam track. Not a sandy mix that turns into concrete when it takes moisture. Or can be 'sealed' to keep it from getting deep and muddy.

15 Apr 2014 9:14 AM
secretation

What a treasure this interview is!  And what a horse Swaps was.  I've always wondered what would have happened if he had completed an attempt at the Triple Crown.  Nashua was a great horse, but might he have been relegated to an Alydar role if Swaps had stayed back east?  Until he rode Spectacular Bid, Bill Shoemaker said Swaps was the best he'd ever ridden.  I'm pulling heavily for California Chrome because of the Swaps connection.  Art Sherman is obviously a very astute horseman and I'm sure he'll give CC the best chance at making his own history.  If we had to lose Shared Belief and Indianapolis, I'm glad we have this wonderful story to follow along the Derby Trail.

15 Apr 2014 1:04 PM
El Basilisco (Uruguay)

Beautiful column,Steve! Memories coming from the own words of two America's turf living legends, combined the need of racing fans to know about their history, with the natur emotion

15 Apr 2014 2:45 PM
Cynthia Holt

You struck a goldvein when you mined this story, Steve.  I loved every sentence of it.  One of the wonderful things about California Chrome's ascent is that it has thrust Swaps and his often over-looked accomplishments back into the spotlight.  For those of us who often  find ourselves pining for racing's glorious past, it is gratifying to know that, through the likes of Art Sherman and Dave Erb, the past is always with us.  I hope that dinner in Saratoga will happen, and I would give a bunch to be a fly on the wall if it does.  Thank you to everyone involved in bringing us this front porch visit.  I could have stayed in the swing forever.  

15 Apr 2014 6:56 PM
Delrene

Thanks for letting us eavesdrop on this wonderful conversation.  What a special treat.  Wonderful people and California Chrome is the real deal for sure.  Feel so lucky to have seen his last four races up close and personal  at the racetrack.  

15 Apr 2014 11:58 PM
Old Timer

Great piece Steve. It was super hearing the tales from these "old timers". Even I am not that old to have seen Swaps. (Although I did get to see Carry Back; Kelso; and Beau Purple as a boy in NY. I even saw old Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons once, well after his training days were over.) Best wishes to CC in the big race.

16 Apr 2014 12:30 PM

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