Once again, we have reached the gates of the pantheon. Beyond beckons the ghosts of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Citation, and the seven other Triple Crown winners who have attained immortality. Will a California-bred, out of obscure and unheralded parentage be allowed to enter when so many have been turned away?
Is California Chrome “America’s Horse,” as his co-owner Steve Coburn claims? We are all aware that Coburn truly believes fate and other ethereal forces of a more personal nature are guiding his flashy golden chestnut toward those hallowed grounds that have existed for the past 36 years only in dreams.
There is an old proverb, which goes: “Today’s opportunity is yesterday’s dream and tomorrow’s memory.”
And no horse has seized the opportunity of the present, fulfilled dreams, and created memories quite like California Chrome. All one had to do was listen to the din and witness the revelry outside the stakes barn following California Chrome’s emotionally charged victory in the 139th Preakness Stakes (gr. I) May 17 to realize just how popular a win this was, not only for the connections of the colt, but for a sport desperately in search of a hero the entire world can embrace. This was not a time for bluebloods, but for blue collars. Not a time for nobility, but a couple of “Dumb-Ass” working stiffs. The silver spoons that fed racing’s giants for most of the 20th century are for now plated with chrome, as resplendent as the coat of the Preakness winner.
The Disney-like story of California Chrome has been told many times in many ways since the colt’s victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Whether or not fate is involved is up to each individual, depending if they are a realist or a dreamer.
We are all aware of the birth of the son of the $2,500 stallion Lucky Pulpit, out of the $8,000 claimer Love the Chase, and how the mare lacerated the wall of her uterus giving birth, resulting in her and her colt having to be confined to a stall while she was recovering and being treated. That formed the basis of the colt’s independent personality and his close relationship with humans.
One day, trainer Steve Sherman, who was based in Northern California, received a phone call from Steve Coburn, who with partner Perry Martin was one of his clients.
“Hey, Steve, we got a really good one,” Coburn said. “We want to run him in Southern California to try to take advantage of the Cal-bred purses down there.”
Sherman replied, “Well, here, let me give you my dad’s phone number. Give him a call.”
Coburn called Art Sherman and sent him the colt. Art, at age 76, was at the tail end of his career, which had begun back in 1955 when he accompanied the great Swaps to Churchill Downs by train for the Kentucky Derby. While he went on to a fairly successful career as a jockey and then a trainer, he was relatively unknown outside of California.
Art and his son and assistant Alan began training the colt immediately after his arrival from Harris Farms, where he was born, raised, broken, and received his early training.
One morning at Hollywood Park, Alan, still not realizing what he had after only a few three-furlong breezes, was looking for a horse to work a half-mile in company with his new colt, named California Chrome. That would help him determine how fast and competitive the colt was. He found out that Eoin Harty was working one of his best 2-year-olds, on whom he was high, and was also looking to test him in company.
Harty went to the frontside to watch the work, while Alan remained on the backside, watching from the trainer’s stand. Harty was feeling good about the matchup, getting to breeze his colt with an obscurely bred Cal-bred. He felt that was the perfect scenario to make his colt look good and boost his confidence against a likely inferior opponent.
“I had Iggy Puglisi up on my colt, and when I heard Alan was looking for someone to work with his horse, I said, ‘Good, we’ll beat the tar out of this Cal-bred,” Harty said.
But what Harty saw was not what he expected. His colt worked well, but this other colt was moving the better of the two and dominated his colt.
“After the work, I said to Alan, ‘I don’t know what you’ve got there, but that is a very good colt.’” Harty recalled. “I’ve been around a lot of good 2-year-olds with Bob Baffert and then on my own and when you see something that catches your eye early on it really stands out. And that was an eye-catching work by that colt. As a trainer, when your good 2-year-old is outworked, it’s a terrible feeling, especially when he's’outworked by a Cal-bred trained by a low-profile trainer.”
Alan added, “Eoin was pretty high on his colt and Chrome just dusted him. I saw that and went, ‘Oh, damn, what have we got here?’”
He would soon find out. For the Sherman family, the journey of a lifetime had begun.
So, it was fate that brought California Chrome’s into Art Sherman’s life and it was fate that brought him into Willie Delgado’s life, but at the expense of his brother Alberto. It was Alberto who rode California Chrome in five of his first six starts. Following a troubled sixth-place finish in the Golden State Juvenile for state-breds, he was replaced by veteran Victor Espinoza. It was a crushing blow to Alberto, especially after California Chrome began his meteoric rise to stardom. But he has since come to terms with it and has become a fan of the colt.
“At first it was ‘Oh, damn,’ but I’m getting over it and I’m rooting for him,” he said, several days before the Preakness. “I think of what could have been, but at least I’m happy I had the opportunity to ride the horse, because I believe he can win the Triple Crown. The unfortunate part is that I was with the colt through the growing pains when he was just learning how to run. But when people now ask me who is the best horse I ever rode I can say California Chrome. They can’t take that away from me.
“I had fun riding him and it was an awesome experience. The day I broke his maiden I told Art this horse will win the Kentucky Derby. I wish I had a tape recorder to prove it. I knew he was something special. Even as a baby he was like an older horse. In fact, the first time I breezed him I thought he was an older horse. When they told me who he was, I said, ‘Oh my God! This is a 2-year-old?’”
Art feels badly for Alberto, but realizes it’s part of the game.
“I realize it’s hard on him knowing that this horse has gone to be what he’s become,” Art said. “I’ve been there myself. If you don’t perform and get the money, everybody looks to replace you. It’s a tough business.”
Ironically, after Alberto was taken off the horse, Willie was fired as an exercise rider for another outfit because the trainer he was working for said he had gained too much weight, claiming that was the cause of several of his horses breaking down. Several days before he was about to return to Maryland to look for work, Alan Sherman told him he wanted him to get up this 2-year-old they were high on. Fate once again played a hand in assembling the cast of characters that would guide California Chrome through life.
And fate and the memory of his deceased sister is what causes Steve Coburn to become so emotional following California Chrome’s victories, as he bursts into tears, barely unable to speak.
“I honestly don’t know how this has happened,” Coburn said following the Preakness. “I think all the moons and the stars lined up in the universe and gave us this wonderful colt and we’ve been blessed with this horse and the people associated with him – Art, Alan, Willie, and his groom Raul, who has been sleeping with this horse from day one. He loves this horse. And I think it’s time we have a Triple Crown winner. And when California Chome – and I want you to listen to me – when California Chrome wins the Belmont he will be the one and only California-bred to ever win the Triple Crown. And I do believe this horse is going to win the Triple Crown. I feel it in my heart and I’m going to take it to the bank.
“I say a prayer before every race, not only for my horse, but for all the horses and the jockeys. This horse was born on my sister Brenda’s birthday, Feb. 18. She died of cancer when she was 36 years old. It’s been 36 years since there’s been a Triple Crown winner. I’m sorry if I’m getting choked up, but I honestly believe that my sister Brenda is this horse’s guardian angel, and I just say, ‘Brenda, bring them all home and show them a safe path.’ And she’s been doing exactly what I’ve asked her to.”
Coburn’s only regret was that his partner, Perry Martin, chose to stay home after having a less than pleasurable experience at Churchill Downs. Art offered to put him in a wig and hide him from the cameras, but to no avail.
Coburn’s wife, Carolyn, was thrilled for her husband and thrilled for the horse. “I’m just totally in awe,” she said. “My gosh, that guy just always delivers. If we win the Triple Crown, Steve might have a heart attack.”
This year’s Preakness field unveiled a new cast of characters, with only California Chrome, Ride On Curlin, and General a Rod returning from the 19-horse Derby field. Classy speedsters such as Social Inclusion, Bayern, Pablo Del Monte, and tactical speed horses Dynamic Impact and Ring Weekend, as well as the filly Ria Antonia and stone closer Kid Cruz, all joined the fray.
California Chrome and Ride On Curlin arrived the Monday before the Preakness and were placed two stalls apart. During Preakness week, Art Sherman and Ride On Curlin’s trainer Billy Gowan developed a strong friendship that expanded to their families, and the family of Ride On Curlin’s owner Daniel Dougherty, and they would have many a fun-filled night at the hotel bar, sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company. They became so close and cared so much for each other, their mantra became, “One-two, one-two.” Every night they would repeat it, signifying how happy they would be for whoever won as long as they finished one-two.
On Friday morning, with Ride On Curlin scheduled to have a walk day following his Thursday work, Gowan showed up around 7 o’clock and heard it from Art. “I was wondering where you were. I was gonna walk your horse for you.” Quips like this had become a daily occurrence, as was Art going over to Ride On Curlin and playing with his tongue, which came out as soon as someone approached. He even accompanied Gowan to the pressbox porch to watch Ride On Curlin work.
One morning, Dan Dougherty showed up at the barn and promptly went over to see California Chrome, greeting the colt with a “Hi Chrome.” He then whipped out his cell phone and took a photo of the Derby winner.
“I’m not proud,” he said. “This is the only sport where you can root for someone and try to beat him at the same time. I like California Chrome, but I’d also like to run him down.”
Ride On Curlin grew stronger and more aggressive each day, while California Chrome, as he always does, just went out and did his thing, stopping repeatedly on the way to the track and checking out the new surroundings and striking magnificent poses for the photographers. Both colts had put on weight since the Derby. But when a story broke that California Chrome was coughing following his Thursday gallop, all hell broke loose in social media land. But the colt, who had coughed only four times, was checked out and it was considered nothing to be alarmed about; just a blister in his throat that he had before the Kentucky Derby that would not affect his performance.
Following heavy rains early on Friday, Preakness Day dawned sunny and breezy, with temperatures in the 60s. The Preakness horses who went to the track were feeling good, including California Chrome, who was the first one out for his jog. Alan Sherman and Delgado loved what they saw.
“Oh, man, he’s on it today,” Alan said while walking the colt back to the barn. “Bring ‘em on.”
Delgado didn’t need to say anything. All he did was give a double thumbs up.
Sherman was told by the security nightwatchman that California Chrome and Ride On Curlin were up at 4 a.m. and yelling at each other.
“They were just talkin’ smack to each other,” Alan told him. “They know they’re in today.”
Ride On Curlin, who came out immediately after the Derby winner, was a completely different story, as he reared straight up leaving the barn and then reared up four times as he was nearing the gap to exit the track. Gowan had to keep shouting at the horse while holding on to him to prevent him from doing it again walking back on the path. In between, however, he turned in a strong gallop, especially for a race day.
Exercise rider Bryan Becchia actually loved what he felt, despite being put in such a precarious position so many times.
“He’s never felt this good and been on point like he is right now,” Becchia said. “They’re gonna see the real Curly today. I’ve been gettin’ on him for six months and he’s never ever gone as good as he has since he’s been here. He’s never moved like he’s been movin.’ He floats over this track. What’s post time, around 6:20? He’ll be climbing over the walls by then.”
The money poured in on California Chrome, who was bet down to 1-2. The only other horse in the 10-horse field who was single-digit odds was Social Inclusion at 5-1. Owner Ron Sanchez was hoping to win for his native Venezuela and resurrect the memory of the country’s greatest hero Canonero II, who won the 1971 Derby and Preakness. Despite the colt having only three career starts, Sanchez has turned out numerous offers for the horse, including one for $7.5 million for 75% interest, in order to pursue his childhood dream.
California Chrome behaved beautifully in the infield saddling area, as did Ride On Curlin. Dan Dougherty gave jockey Joel Rosario some last words of advice: “Ride him hard, he can take it; believe me. There isn’t a horse in there to be scared of.”
In the gate, California Chrome was looking around, but had his head straight as the gates opened, breaking sharply. He was quickly joined on his outside by Pablo Del Monte, who went to the lead, with California Chrome settling nicely in second. Unfortunately for Bayern, he was put in the big squeeze by Ring Weekend to his inside and Ria Antonia on his outside, while getting jostled around pretty good. He then bumped hard with the filly, who came back in on him, and got shuffled back in the pack, never to pose a threat.
California Chrome always manages to work out a great trip, and when Ria Antonia moved up to surprisingly challenge for the lead, it left California Chrome in danger of getting put in a box by Social Inclusion. But jockey Victor Espinoza quickly moved California Chrome up in order to beat Social Inclusion to the outside garden spot in third, and in doing so actually shoved the burly Social Inclusion out of his way.
Down the backstretch after a quarter in :23.56 and half in a solid :46.85, California Chrome was still sitting in a perfect spot, moving up into second when Ria Antonia began her rapid retreat. Just as he did, Social Inclusion moved with him and was soon breathing down his neck, nearly pulling on even terms around the far turn. By now, the field had bunched and Rosario steered Ride On Curlin to the outside, where the colt began a strong sweeping move.
At the top of the stretch after three-quarters in 1:11.06, California Chrome, facing his first serious challenge in quite some time, repulsed Social Inclusion’s bid and, as usual, switched leads on cue and set sail for home, drawing clear. But Ride On Curlin was rolling on the far outside, and for a brief moment, it looked as if Social Inclusion might have softened the favorite up for a late challenger, especially since Ride On Curlin was drawing well clear of the rest of the field. But Espinoza shook up California Chrome and it was quickly apparent Ride On Curlin was not going to catch him.
Bob Baffert, watching on a small flat screen TV in the paddock, saw that Bayern had no chance to win and turned his attention to California Chrome.
“He’s gone; he’s got it,” Baffert said. “Come on, hold on there, boy. You know what, he’s an amazing horse. The way he was in the paddock; so relaxed. He’s got speed and knows how to stay out of trouble. He’s a freaky horse; he’s the real deal.”
California Chrome came home his final three-sixteenth in a powerful :19.19 to complete the 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.84, the fastest Preakness since Big Brown’s 1:54.80 in 2008. Ride On Curlin finished 6 1/2 lengths ahead of Social Inclusion, who just held off General A Rod for third.
Like in the Derby, emotions began to spill out all over the track, as wave upon wave of cheers greeted racing’s newest hero. Alan Sherman, disheveled and reaching deep for every breath, kept waiting for his first glimpse of California Chrome.
“Where’s my horse?” he asked. “Oh, there he is. This is just amazing, unbelievable. What a great horse; great ride. This is just a dream come true for all of us. I’m so happy. I’ve always loved this horse. He just tries so hard every time. That’s all you can ask. This horse loves Victor and Victor loves him. They get along so well. This has been such a fun time for us. We’ve still got one more to go, so we’ll just continue doing what we’ve been doing and hope it works out for the best.”
Alan has been wearing a hand-made purple and green bracelet that the 9-year-old daughter of one of Coburn’s friends made and gave to him at the Derby draw. He hasn’t taken it off since.
He then went to greet his horse, flinging his arms straight up in the air. Espinoza brought California Chrome well up the stretch, so the fans could see him, and they responded with a loud ovation.
“Words can’t describe this,” said Art Sherman’s wife Faye. “I feel fabulous for Art. This is the best thing to ever happen to us; a trainer’s dream, right?”
Art seemed overwhelmed to be engulfed in all this rapture, especially at his age. But he was also thinking of someone else; his new-found friend with whom he had bonded and welcomed into his family.
“Oh, man, what a thrill to be in this position,” he said. “My good friend ran second and I’m so proud of him. Billy is a real good kid and I know one day he’ll be standing here like I am today.”
Gowan had already received two phone calls from his mentor Jack Van Berg, who has been there all the way on this ride of a lifetime.
A proud Gowan was all smiles as he said of his colt, “That sucker just won’t quit.”
In a later quiet moment, Billy said to Art, “It’s like we’ve known each other forever.”
“Well, we’ll be together in New York, too,” Art said. “Alan said they’re going to stable us together.”
“You better make sure,” Billy replied. “I don’t want to get too far away from you.”
Another person whose life has been touched by California Chrome is longtime Santa Anita patron Eddie Espinoza, who at the age of 71 stands to win $1 million if the colt sweeps the Triple Crown. As the random winner of the Santa Anita Derby Millionaire Contest, Espinoza and his wife were flown to Baltimore for the Preakness by Santa Anita and introduced to Art Sherman, who was told what Espinoza has riding on the Belmont Stakes.
"You win a million dollars if we win the Belmont?" Sherman asked as if shocked by the news. "Well, if we win, you better take me out to dinner that night."
And so ends another chapter in this remarkable story, with its equally remarkable characters, all seemingly guided by fate. Could destiny grab these people by the hand and lead them this far only to abandon them in New York, where so many before them saw their Triple Crown dreams shattered in the vast expanse of Belmont Park? Can they guide this magnificent colt with such care and purpose from his humble beginnings to the sport’s brightest spotlight, only to cast him aside?
If there are indeed racing gods or Triple Crown gods or whatever name you want to give them, this is their opportunity to light up racing’s darkened corridors and display the sport in all its beauty and grace and show its detractors how much love and friendship it can nurture. Maybe all it takes is the bonding between everyday families and their horses, one of whom has become in our minds and hearts the golden steed of our childhood that is destined for greatness.
Oliver Wendall Holmes once said, “Nothing is so commonplace as the wish to be remarkable.”
Some, however, do not wish to be remarkable, but have it thrust upon them, whether they are a 3-year-old colt or a 77-year-old trainer.
The Shermans, Steve Coburn, Perry Martin and the other cast of characters have had it thrust upon them, and now they head to New York, where Art Sherman was born, to complete this fairy tale that so far has been, well, remarkable.