Art Sherman laughed as he watched his son and co-trainer Alan goof around with California Chrome, who grabbed the brim of Alan’s hat with his teeth and yanked it off his head, then engaged in a chin-to-chin staredown that almost melted into a kiss.
“He is a character, and I’m talking about the horse,” Sherman said of the thoroughbred he calls “my rock star.”
California Chrome, beloved since he captured the nation’s imagination with his Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories in 2014, will run the final race of his remarkable career on Saturday at Gulfstream Park’s $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. If he wins the $7 million first prize in the richest race in thoroughbred history, he’ll retire to the breeding shed as the first horse to pass $20 million in earnings.
Sherman, 79, wants this Cinderella story to end with Chrome going out on top.
“He’s on his game,” Sherman said at Barn 2 after Chrome’s pre-dawn workout. “He seems to get better with age.”
Chrome is the 6-5 favorite in a rematch with fellow California-bred Arrogate, the 7-5 second choice who overtook Chrome to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a neck in November at Santa Anita.
Both Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza and Arrogate jockey Mike Smith will have to navigate a tricky start, with Chrome in the outside post in the 12-horse field and Arrogate in the inside post for the 1 1/8-mile distance.
“I’ve not been very lucky with draws, but he’s overcome every post position,” Sherman said. “He’s got enough early speed to put him anywhere you want.”
Arrogate, 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song who won last summer’s Travers Stakes in record time, also looked smooth after a 1 1/2-mile gallop on Wednesday.
“He’s such an efficient mover,” said Jim Barnes, assistant to trainer Bob Baffert. “His mechanics remind me of American Pharaoh.”
At age 6, Chrome is at his peak, winning his races by an average of five lengths faster than he did as a young horse, said Sherman, who longs for another full season.
“I’d like a chance to run him one more year for $27 million in purses,” he said. “But I look forward to training his babies.”
Top horses in the long-ago “Sport of Kings” often thunder down the homestretch during the five weeks of the Triple Crown whirlwind and run off into the sunset, never to compete again. There’s pressure to put them out to stud rather than keep racing and risk injury. If Chrome had won the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as a 3-year-old in 2014, he would have been retired, Alan said.
Instead, he has continued beating opponents and charming his devoted “Chromies” and casual fans alike. The racing industry is betting on events such as the Pegasus to provide incentive to prolong careers and grow the fan base.
“You’ve got to have heroes and that creates excitement,” Sherman said. “Years ago, horses stayed around longer, like Kelso, John Henry, Cigar.
“Look at Chrome. He started out green and gangly, needed blinkers and was always ducking and diving. But once he came into his body, he’s developed into the professional athlete he is now — strong and intelligent.”
Chrome has 125 mares lined up for appointments in the breeding shed for $40,000 per session at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky. Sherman expects Chrome to make $5 million his first year. If his foals look good, his fee will increase over the next 20 years. Tapit is up to $300,000. Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh earns $200,000.
“On the other hand, Big Brown started at $100,000 and he’s down to $10,000,” Alan said.
Sherman — who was the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby at 77 — is thankful for a glorious ride.
He moved to Los Angeles as a kid, where his father ran a barbershop in Silver Lake.
“There were all these handicappers and bookmakers getting their hair cut and they’d say, ‘Artie, you’re short, why don’t you become a jockey?’ ”
By 18, Sherman was the exercise rider for Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, sleeping in the hay in the box car with him. During his riding career, he saw celebrity-dotted crowds of 60,000 at the track.
Four years ago, he was asked by owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn to train their feisty chestnut. They named their alliance DAP Racing for dumb-ass partners because they were told only a dumb ass would buy Chrome’s mother, Love the Chase, a nervous filly with a modest record and a breathing problem. She was bred to Lucky Pulpit, who also had a humble career, for $2,000. After a difficult birth, mother and foal spent a month together in the stall, and Chrome received lots of extra affection and interaction with his caretakers.
Chrome, named for his home state and flashy white markings, was embraced because he was owned by “everyday people,” Coburn said. Coburn worked in a factory and his wife worked in payroll. Chrome’s purple and green silks were adorned with a buck-toothed donkey. Chrome went to the 2014 Belmont as the favorite but was stepped on at the start, tearing tissue on his heal. He finished fourth.
Coburn sold his ownership stake to Taylor Made Farm, and in 2016 Chrome came back with a six-race winning streak.
When Chrome won the $10 million Dubai World Cup last year, he became the top earner in North American racing history at $14.5 million. Japan’s Orfevre is the all-time earner at $19,005,276.
“At Christmas I got 150 cards from all over the world, plus people sending him cookies and horse shoes,” Sherman said. “I’m going to miss him. The void will never go away. Chrome may be once in a lifetime, but I’m not retiring.”