LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Art Sherman is not a complicated man. He is 77 and proud of a life that is longer on memories than it is on bankroll. Sixty years ago, he was a kid from Brooklyn learning about horses from a crew of cowboys.
He survived them and became a jockey before finding his true gift on backwater shed rows like this one. He has known plenty of characters, but not many like the ones he is surrounded by now.
There are Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, the breeders and owners of their famous colt.
There is Victor Espinoza, the jock who rides him. What they share is a horse named California Chrome, and they all fell hard for him in their own way.
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His name was pulled out of a cowboy hat — for real — and combines his birthplace with the term used by horse people for the flashes of white on a horse. California Chrome sports bobby socks on all four feet, and his face is creased by a white racing stripe.
He is carrying the hopes of a battered sport on his back along with the curiosity of those who do not really care about horse racing but prefer their narratives dented and dusty and with a whiff of tall tale.
California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, and on the first Saturday in June, he will try to become the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown.
“My horse is an extra-special horse,” Sherman said, matter-of-factly. “If it’s meant to be, he’ll win this race and he’ll be immortal.”
The Odd Couple
Is California Chrome extra special by design or destiny? Martin and Coburn, the owners, make a case for both. They are friendly but not overly familiar partners. Martin lives in Yuba City, Calif., and Coburn 166 miles to the east in Topaz Lake, Nev.
They met when they were part of Blinkers On Racing Stable, one of the syndicates that allow horse enthusiasts to own a small piece of a runner while learning the game.
They were among the partners in Love the Chase, a small filly who managed only a single victory in six races. When it was time for Blinkers On to get rid of her, Martin and Coburn decided they wanted to try their hand at the breeding game and they might as well do it together.
Martin bought into the theory that a good horse could come from anywhere. He chose the stallion Lucky Pulpit, who stood for a bargain basement $2,000, which seemed fair for a runner who had won only three of his 22 starts.
Martin understood, however, that the female side of the family can be far more important to passing on the traits of a runner. In Love the Chase, he and Coburn had a bloodline rich in stamina and class. California Chrome descends from the mare Betty Derr, whose line includes another California-bred horse, Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner, as well as Iron Liege, the ’57 Derby champ.
Martin was so convinced that he had built a classic horse that before California Chrome ever walked onto a racetrack he sent an email to Sherman, the trainer, with the header “The Road to the Derby,” laying out the races the colt would run to get there.
Sherman thought his new clients were earnest but perhaps a little goofy.
“It’s everybody’s dream, but not every dream comes true,” he said. “They must got somebody up there looking out for them. Chrome has hit every one of those races in the plan.”
As Coburn, 61, tells the story, it already has the whiff of an American folk tale. Three weeks before Chrome was born, he said, he had a dream that sent him tugging his wife awake so he could deliver a prophecy.
“I believe it’s going to be a big chestnut colt with a white blaze,” Coburn told her.
When Carolyn Coburn first laid eyes on the foal in his stall, she called to her husband.
“Come here,” she said. “There is your dream.”
When he looked inside, he was inspired.
“This horse is going to do something big,” he told his wife. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to stay in the game to make sure this colt gets to be the best that he can be.”
In the weeks before the Derby, he proclaimed Chrome’s victory on the first Saturday of May “a done deal.”
“It will be 36 years this year since there’s been a Triple Crown winner,” Coburn said. “He will be the first California-bred to ever win a Triple Crown.”
There was a birthday cake waiting for him in the winner’s circle May 23, along with a dozen of his colleagues — all of them race riders, many of them half his age. Victor Espinoza was spending his 42nd birthday at Santa Anita Park, riding a few races atop a couple of decent horses.
He was having quite a month. Victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were behind him, and another crack at a Triple Crown awaited him in 15 days at the Belmont Stakes. He was not yet ready to talk about the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion, as the Belmont is known.
“I’m still having fun from the last two wins — I’m not thinking about the next race,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza had been in this position before, in 2002 when War Emblem went to New York with a chance to sweep the series. He does not remember what he did then to celebrate his 30th birthday. He does remember not having terribly much fun. He was in his prime and on top of the sport, but it had not been easy for him to get there.
He had grown up afraid of horses and had to work at making them comfortable with him. He struggled with his English. Espinoza was being pushed and pulled by the pressure of the Triple Crown attempt and the demands of a tough boss, the trainer Bob Baffert, who had come close to winning a Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
Espinoza’s previous bid for history ended before it started: War Emblem scraped his knees after stumbling at the start, and from there the Belmont got worse: He finished 19 lengths behind a 70-1 shot named Sarava.
“I thought that was my shot,” he said, “and that was it.”
Espinoza kept his head down and continued to grind out a living at the top of the national jockey standings. Over the next five years he averaged more than 200 victories and more than $12 million in purses by being what his agent, Brian Beach, called a steady Eddy.
But one morning last August at Del Mar, Espinoza was working a horse on the racetrack when he saw a flash of white blow by him. He saw the ivory face and the matching socks. Espinoza asked around and found that the horse’s name was California Chrome.
“I fell crazy for that horse,” he said. “I told Brian about him and that someday I’d like to ride him.”
There is the crow of a rooster and Art Sherman is walking his shed row, running his hands over the flank of a horse, gripping the ankle of another. He smiles as he passes the empty stall, the one that belongs to California Chrome, the colt who has taken him further than he ever thought possible.
“I never thought I’d be in this position,” he said. “If a good one came along, I had owners that would sell them before I could develop them.”
His father was a barber, and his clientele included horseplayers who took a look at tiny Art and decided that he had the perfect makeup for a jockey. Now, all he needed was to learn about horses.
“I learned the fundamentals,” Sherman said. “I learned how committed you had to be to be in this business.”
Sherman is proudest of his career as a trainer. His wife, Faye, helped keep the family afloat by working at Bay Meadows Racetrack for 30 years. Art Sherman had a part-time job taking bets, too.
“Making a living was tough,” he said.
But over 53 years of marriage, Art and Faye built a family around horses.
They will all be in New York for the Belmont, and that is what Art says he is going to appreciate most of all. As for California Chrome, Art Sherman is philosophical. Sixty years on the racetrack have taught him that fairy tales seldom come true.
“He’s done everything I could ever want in the horse,” Art Sherman said. “He doesn’t have to prove anything to me.”