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LOUISVILLE — Usually there’s a knot of 60 to 75 people standing outside the barn of the Kentucky Derby favorite the day before the race. Sometimes more, especially if Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, or another A-Lister is training the big horse.
At 8:15 on Friday morning, there were two people standing near Barn 20, the home of California Chrome, favorite for Kentucky Derby 140.
One was Art Sherman, the colt’s miniature-sized trainer.
The other was a struggling handicapper who is picking California Chrome and doesn’t understand why the wise guys keep knocking him.
That would be me.
California Chrome has won his last four races by more than 24 lengths. He’s got the best speed figures in the 19-horse field, the only colt to deliver numbers of 100 or more three times. He’s prepared the old-fashioned way, with 10 races on his resume.
What’s the problem?
Plenty, I guess. I started hearing the knocks before the colt backed off his van Monday afternoon.
He’s a Cal-bred — and a horse bred in California has not won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. His sire, Lucky Pulpit, stands for $2,500. He’s never raced outside California. Sherman declined to work the horse at Churchill. Yada, yada, yada.
I could answer those questions. But I had Art Sherman to myself Friday morning. I let him.
Are you losing sleep over the colt’s pedigree?
“It’s always the same thing,” Sherman said. “They said the same things when I brought Swaps [the 1955 Derby winner] out here as a kid. They said, ‘Wow, how are they going to beat Summer Tan, Nashua, and the other great horses in that era?’
“It’s pretty cool that you can come back and have a Cal-bred, which I’m happy to be. That’s where I live. I’m raised in the L.A. area. It means a lot for me because we haven’t won a race since Decidedly.
“It would be nice, just for the breeders and people behind the scenes so it keeps them in business. We need heroes right now. I think he’s become one of them.”
He’s a hero in California, where California Chrome raced 10 times. But this is Kentucky. He hasn’t raced within a thousand miles of the Twin Spires.
“It all depends on how you look at it,” Sherman said. “We’ve run at three different tracks — Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Del Mar.
“Every track that he’s went over, he’s run well. I don’t think he has to take his track with him. … He ran the second fastest Santa Anita Derby ever, and there’s been some great horses run the Santa Anita Derby that turned out to be champions.
“I don’t think he cares where he is. I just know that he’ll run. Put him in that gate and he’ll be ready.”
Even without one workout at Churchill Downs?
“I’ve been here before for the Breeders Cup,” Sherman said. “He just ran a month ago and has had a strong campaign. I wanted to keep him fresh. He’s plenty fit. I worked him at Los Alamitos before he came over here.
“I think of Hoppertunity. He worked on an off-track [at Churchill Downs]. Black-letter work. Boom. He’s not here. He got hurt. I don’t know. Maybe I did the right thing.
“I’m sure if he gets beat they’ll say, well, he should have worked him over the race track. If he doesn’t get beat they’ll say I did the right thing.”
Was that your plan or were you following advice from trainers who have navigated the Derby grind?
“I did it on my own,” Sherman said. “I can’t worry about what other people did. I know the pattern of my horse. I know what he likes. I’m not changing anything. He’s been running awesome. He’s won his last four races by over 25 lengths. What am I going to do, start changing things?
“I’m just awed that he’s running like he is. I’m not changing everything. He’s schooled in the paddock. He’s schooled in the gate. He’s ready to go. I’m making no excuses. He’s push-button.”
Push-button? So you’re not reaching for the blood-pressure pills?
“The only thing that worries me is sometimes he don’t break that sharp,” Sherman said. “When he does break sharp, he comes away from there really running.”
And when he doesn’t break sharp?
“I hold my breath,” he said. “But even in the Santa Anita Derby, he got knocked around pretty good, just race-riding stuff. He was pressured all the way.
“Turning for home, here come Hoppertunity, looking like was going to run by us. I looked at Victor [Espinoza, Chrome’s jockey] and the hold he had on him. I said, ‘Wow, he’s got plenty of horse. Let’s see if he’s good enough.’
“He left them like they were tied. I was thinking, ‘Wow, I see it, but I don’t really believe it.’”
So he’s ready?
“Looks like the picture of health,” Sherman said. “He shines like a copper penny.”
Make it California Chrome, followed by Medal Count and Intense Holiday.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WDRB-TV in Louisville. Rick Bozich is a columnist for WDRB.