LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Harry's Barber Shop was a lively hangout in the 1950s. There was a regular cast of characters who came through, and the pay phone in the place was often busy.
Young Art Sherman would sit in his dad's shop and listen to the phone conversations the men had.
"Give me $20 to win and place on so-and-so," they'd say. Gambling was a big part of the scene at Harry Sherman's place.
"We had a lot of action going on in the barber shop," Sherman recalled.
The gamblers looked at pint-sized Art, who would top out at 5 feet 2½ inches, and suggested he become a jockey. He took them up on it, and the racetrack became his life.
He rode for more than 20 years, and the sport took its toll. There was an ankle that was broken in three places, a fractured cheekbone, a busted collarbone. He lacerated his spleen once and broke his nose twice. But racing also took him to Chicago, where he went on a blind date with a girl named Faye who found the sport quite boring. After being married to Art for 53 years, she's changed her outlook on the game.
Art rode his share of winners, but rarely the big horses in the big races. He'd occasionally supplement his income playing "race-horse rummy," a card game that was popular in the jockeys' room between races, for 25 cents a point.
In 1980 he became a trainer, primarily working the California circuit. As was the case with his riding career, most of the victories were small and unremarkable.
"I never made it with the big, big horses … but I'm thankful for my career," Art said. "I look at all the young people coming up and hope they have as much fun as I have."
About the only time Art intersected with horse-racing greatness was in 1955, when he was just a kid. Art worked for Mesh Tenney, mucking stalls and exercising horses, which put him on the back of Swaps. Art rode the train from California to Louisville with Swaps, sleeping on the straw next to the horse. He was at Churchill Downs to see Swaps win the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 1955, but Art stayed in the barn area for the race; he never made it to the grandstand or the winner's circle.
Fifty-nine years later, Art and equine greatness have reunited on the same hallowed grounds. The 77-year-old is the trainer of the improbable but undeniable Derby favorite, California Chrome. In the twilight of his career, Art Sherman may yet set foot into the Churchill Downs winner's circle.
"This is from my heart," said California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, who is invested with Perry Martin in the wryly named Dumb Ass Partners Racing. "It would be fantastic to win the Kentucky Derby for DAP Racing. But one of the most important things is to bring it full circle for Art Sherman."
Art has become the lovable leading man of the 140th Kentucky Derby – the little old man who is on the ride of his life with the kind of horse he'd only watched others train. Unless you have money on other Derby horses or you have no soul, you're rooting for this guy to win the roses Saturday. This will be an advanced class in Art appreciation.
"This is bringing back a lot of memories from when I was a kid and I was here," he said earlier this week from the Churchill barn area, standing on a stool so the cluster of reporters could see him. "It's been a great career. This would be a feather in my cap if I get lucky."
He's gotten lucky enough getting this far. Art represents the Everyman trainers who rarely have a part to play in the first Saturday in May. He's emblematic of the conditioners who are trying like heck every day to win the run-of-the-mill races, not the guys who spend millions at the select sales and hunt big game in graded stakes.
He'd never won a race as big as the Santa Anita Derby until California Chrome came along. And the way California Chrome came along was flat crazy.
Coburn and Martin were part of a syndicate that owned a 2-year-old filly named Love the Chase, who proved to be a pretty bad race horse. When the syndicate of about a dozen people decided to unload her, Coburn and Martin stepped in and bought her for $8,000 – chump change to the bluebloods of the racing world but not to a couple of working guys. They bred her to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit, and her first foal was California Chrome. Which is basically like picking up a paintbrush for the first time and producing a masterpiece.
When it was time for the 2-year-old Chrome to become a race horse, the owners looked around for their kind of trainer. Believing they had a special horse, they wanted to send him to Southern California instead of the lesser competition in the Bay Area. Martin had some horses with Steve Sherman, Art's son, and consulted with him.
Steve suggested his dad. He fit what the owners were looking for. What Art lacked in high profile he made up for in personal attention to his animals.
"Small barn," Coburn said. "Old timer. Old school. Old rules. Every horse is an important horse [to Art], and he takes quality time with each one. We knew we had the real deal for this horse."
Part of Art's old-school approach was to race California Chrome frequently as a 2-year-old. In an era when horses are handled with kid gloves and lightly raced, Chrome's seven starts at 2 are the most of anyone in the 20-horse Derby field.
But it wasn't until the last of those 2-year-old starts that things really began to come together for the horse. After a pair of sixth-place finishes, the Chrome connections changed jockeys and put Victor Espinoza on their colt for a Dec. 22 stakes race at Hollywood Park.
California Chrome won by six lengths that day and hasn't been beaten since. In fact, he has steamrolled the competition, winning four straight races by a combined 22¼ lengths.
"He's grown up," Art said. "He's developed into a runner. He goes out there and he kind of takes my breath away."
Espinoza has had it so easy, in fact, that Art jokingly threatened to have him replaced.
"I told Victor if he keeps winning like this, I might take my [jockey's] license out and try it one more time,' " Art said. "Maybe 20 years ago I would've done it."
He looks great for his age, but Art admits that he's slowed down in recent years. Managing his stable of 20-25 California horses is made easier by the assistance of his son, Alan.
"He's got my back," Art said. "He does most of the work and I do a lot of B-S-ing."
"That's pretty much how it goes," Alan confirmed with a smile.
After years of watching it on TV in California, the entire family is flocking to Louisville for the Derby. They're staying downtown at the swanky old Brown Hotel, and Art has been soaking up every minute in the barn area. He's graciously handled the media demands on his time and enjoyed the conversations with the famous (former jockey Jerry Bailey) and the not-so-famous (80-year-old Forrest Kaelin, who used to ride with Art back in the day).
For the kid who listened to the gamblers in the barber shop more than 60 years ago, this is the culmination of a long ride. It's a moment he may have envisioned of but never really expected. Art Sherman doesn't like to think of retiring ("I don't know what I'd do") but winning the Kentucky Derby at age 77 would be a glorious career coda.
"I look back at all the years you put in this game, all the horses you've saddled, all the races you've run," he said. "It would just be a dream."
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