Trainer Art Sherman used a word that will delight the growing legion of California Chrome fans, describing the condition of the nearly certain Kentucky Derby favorite as “perfect.”
“He’s coming into the Derby perfect, the way I would like him to be,” Sherman said during a national conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon.
According to Sherman, 77, California Chrome continues to show great spirit during the morning gallops that will lead to his final serious workout on Saturday at his Los Alamitos base. He is due to be shipped from the West Coast to Churchill Downs on Monday.
“He was full of himself,” Sherman said. “He enjoys himself very much. He likes to train in the morning.”
Everything he has seen so far is helping to build confidence in the California-bred, who has developed into a “rock star” on the West Coast.
“I’m sure he’ll perform,” Sherman said. “He’s a gutty little horse.”
Decades have passed, but he knows what it is to arrive at Churchill Downs with a big shot. He rode in the same dusty rail car as Swaps when that horse ventured from California to Louisville to win the 1955 Run for the Roses. He said this experience is stirring those memories for him and all of the friends he made in the game.
“I’m having a lot of fun, believe it or not,” he said. “I’ve been getting calls from all over the country and it’s pretty exciting for me. I have made a lot of friends in this business and I enjoy hearing from them.”
Virtually everyone wants to know what transformed California Chrome, who won only two of his first six starts but has rattled off four consecutive victories since then by a combined margin of 24¼ lengths. In one obvious factor, the streak coincides with the addition of well-respected veteran jockey Victor Espinoza to the team.
Sherman, while praising Espinoza’s strong and sure handling, also said, “I think it’s maturity. I know he was kind of green when he started, but he’s a different-looking horse now with a good hip, good shoulder. Each time he goes out there, he kind of takes my breath away.”
The fun began when California Chrome bid farewell to Hollywood Park in style, dominating the King Glorious Stakes, a stakes race for California-breds, by 6 ¼ lengths even though he was forced four-wide into the final turn.
His 3-year-old debut brought a 5½-length romp in the California Cup Derby, which also was restricted to state-breds, on Jan. 25 at Santa Anita.
The chestnut son of Lucky Pulpit remained at Santa Anita but ventured into much deeper waters in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 8. He took command early and never was seriously challenged in dusting Midnight Hawk by 7¼ lengths.
California Chrome handled his first test at 1 1/8 miles with stunning ease in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. He raced just off the lead in the early going before pouncing for a 5¼-length score against Hoppertunity.
“I’ve never had a horse do that before,” Sherman said of the torrid stretch.
The trainer’s greatest worry is not the condition of his blossoming star. He frets about circumstances he cannot control.