After lifetime of hustling, Sherman hits it big - NBC Sports

After lifetime of hustling, Sherman hits it big
Venerable horseman gets his due with prized pupil one race shy of unlikely Triple Crown
June 6, 2014, 11:00 am

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. -- Lord, Eddie Arcaro could ride. You know that feeling that overtakes you when you see something impossibly beautiful, like the sun setting in Santa Fe or Van Gogh's The Starry Night or Usain Bolt in full stride? That was Arcaro. The other jockeys simply called him "The Master.” There was nothing else to say.

Sometimes, young Art Sherman would watch a black-and-white film of Arcaro riding in a horse race -- and he would watch it again and again and again. He was not watching to learn (for he was trying to be a jockey himself) but to feel awe. He thought they were one organism, Arcaro and a thoroughbred, one being. The horse supplied the power. Arcaro instilled the desperation and will.

Lord, Arcaro could ride.

Art Sherman can see Arcaro still. For a moment, he's not a man on the brink of history. For a moment, he’s not the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. For a moment, he’s not thinking about Chrome’s chances to finally break the 36-year Triple Crown drought at Saturday’s Belmont. The morning sun burns warm, and Sherman takes off his jacket, and it’s 1956, and he's 19 again. He's riding a horse whose name is lost in his memory.

WATCH: Belmont Stakes (4:30 p.m. ET; NBC, Live Extra)  |  All-Access social hub

There's Arcaro, the man from the black-and-white movies. He’s on the right, a length in front. Art watches him closely. Everything else is a blur -- the grandstands are out of focus, the other horses are blobs of brown and gray. But Arcaro is vivid. He switches leads to his left. Sherman switches leads too. Arcaro switches back to the right. Sherman switches right. Arcaro pulls back. Sherman pulls back. Even in the heat of the race, Sherman cannot help but marvel at his perfect balance, his overwhelming power -- Sherman has seen so many jockeys. Nobody rides like Arcaro.

All the other horses disappear. There is only Arcaro and Sherman as they make their way around the final turn, into the stretch. Sherman waits for Arcaro to make his move. And he waits. And he waits. Sherman feels sure that he has waited too long -- they are down the stretch now -- only then Arcaro goes. Sherman goes too. Their horses run stride for stride but Sherman can sense that his horse has a little bit more. They reach the wire. Sherman's horse wins by a nose.

How many times has he re-run that race in his head? How many times did he think about it when he had no money, when friends made sure he got some food, when Sherman wondered what he was still doing in this crazy game? How many times had he told the story? A hundred? A thousand? However many times he told others, he told himself the story more. He beat Arcaro. That afternoon almost 60 years ago, Sherman felt an arm around his shoulder.

"You run a nice race, kid," Arcaro told him.

Art Sherman was sure, utterly sure, that would be the pinnacle of his racing life. What could possibly top beating Arcaro?

* * *

Understand, Art Sherman does not need this. Oh, don't get him wrong. He's enjoying the hell out of it. He's relishing the moment as his horse, California Chrome, tries to finally break the spell and win the Triple Crown. He's having the time of his life.

In Louisville, before the Kentucky Derby, he visited the graveside of his old pal, the great thoroughbred Swaps -- maybe he shed a few tears there. In Baltimore, he met relatives he did not even know that he had. In New York this week, he caught a couple of shows. That's mostly for his wife, Faye -- she cannot get enough of the plays. He fell asleep. Well, he doesn't mind a musical now and again. Jersey Boys. He liked that one.

Sure, it has been nice. Folks have sent him cards and packages, gifts and flowers, samples and photos and plaques. Companies want him to endorse their products. People want him to train their horses. Yes, he's enjoying every moment of this ride, the impossible ride of training California Chrome. "It's been a dream, really," he says. "I mean -- how could it be anything but a dream?"

WATCH: Sherman says Chrome 'dream for any traimer'  |  Can Chrome complete Triple?

He loves it ... but he doesn't need it. People miss that. They ask Art all the time if Chrome's victory at the Kentucky Derby, his victory at the Preakness, his opportunity to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to finish off the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont, somehow completes his career. Sherman had been a marginal jockey for almost a quarter-century, bumming rides whenever and wherever he could find them. "You had to hustle in those days," he says, unapologetically.

Then he became a successful California trainer -- though not one close to the big time. Mel Brooks likes to say he became an overnight success after 30 years. Art Sherman, too -- an overnight success at 77, after a lifetime of hustling.

But to ask if Chrome's success completes Sherman's career is to suggest that the career was somehow incomplete before. And Art doesn't buy that. "If I could live my life over again," he says. "I'd live it exactly the way I lived it."

* * *

He was born in Brooklyn and moved to California when he was 7 -- the doctor had suggested a drier climate for his father. Harry Sherman opened up a barbershop in Silver Lake, in the heart of Los Angeles. Art cleaned up. He was short and trim and athletic, like his father. He remembers one of the customers telling his father, "Harry, you know, that boy is built like a jockey. He ought to be a jockey."

Art knew nothing about horses -- absolutely nothing. His family knew nothing about horses (save a couple of uncles who liked to bet at the track). But Art remembers the electricity going off in his brain when he heard that. Yes. He would become a jockey. Why? Even now, all these years later, he can’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it’s simply that up to that moment in the barbershop, he was resigned to living what seemed to him an ordinary life, a barbershop life. And then suddenly, instantly, with one suggestion, he saw a chance for a whole different kind of life -- a life of travel and drama and thrills and danger.

"I've always liked adventure, you know?" he says. "I like to be where the action is."

He caught on at Rex Ellsworth's ranch -- Ellsworth was a character. He was a self-proclaimed cowboy from Arizona, who used to say that his father fed the horse belonging to Geronimo. Ellsworth would own more racehorses than anybody in the world. Sports Illustrated called Ellsworth the most controversial man in horse racing -- the Ellsworth trainers had a reputation for mistreating horses.

Sherman did find some of the Ellsworth training methods to be harsh (“They taught me a few tricks I could use … but I don’t train horses they way they did,” he says). Still, it was on the Ellsworth ranch that Art Sherman learned how to be a horseman. He did a little bit of everything, but what he loved most was just being around the horses. When Ellsworth’s great thoroughbred Swaps made the train ride from California to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, Sherman rode in the same boxcar and slept in the same hay.

Sherman never rode Swaps in a race -- it was Willie Shoemaker who rode Swaps to the Derby victory over Arcaro and Nashua -- but he did ride him in workouts. He can remember once going a mile in 1:35 -- close to the world record Swaps would set. "It was thrilling," Sherman says. "There's no feeling in the world like it."

He left Ellsworth and moved East to find work as a jockey. He found enough work to survive -- just barely. Every now and again he could get lucky, catch on with a pretty good horse, win a big race or two. He won a pretty big stakes race in Maryland in 1959, and was congratulated afterward by Richard Nixon, then vice president of the United States. Nixon and Sherman had attended the same high school in Whittier. A photo of the two of them ran in the next day's paper with the cutline: "Old Neighbors."

"I still have that paper around somewhere," Sherman says. There weren’t many newspaper clippings in those days. Art married Faye in 1961, they had two sons, and it wasn’t easy. He thought about quitting the horse game many times, but he never did. Riding horses was the only thing he knew how to do. When his body gave out and he had to retire from riding, he became a trainer. He wanted to be the anti-Ellsworth. His motto: "You gotta let a horse be a horse."

His personality did get him a few clients. He had some success and got a few more. When you ask Art Sherman how he was able to stay in the horse racing business for so many years, he sums up with one word: Hustle. Art Sherman says he wouldn't know what to do with himself he if he wasn't hustling for something.

* * *

What does hustle mean, anyway? Well, maybe it's this: Before the Belmont, there was some talk that the race officials might not let California Chrome race with the nasal strip that Sherman puts on Chrome's nose to help him breathe. New York officials can be demanding that way. Sherman made his case to the officials and afterward there was a reporter waiting with questions.

He answered the questions of course. And maybe Art happened to mention to the reporter that, without a nasal strip, he might not race Chrome at the Belmont. He didn't make any threats, mind you -- Art is not the threatening kind. No, he just happened to mention that there was a pretty big race happening back in Los Alamitos, and that was his home track and all, and that he was pretty sure that the stewards there would be happy to let Chrome wear a harmless little strip over his nose.

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Within 24 hours, the Belmont people came out with a strong statement: They had absolutely no problem at all with Chrome or any other horse wearing a nasal strip. No problem at all.

That, friends, is hustling.

* * *

When Sherman first began talking with Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, owners of California Chrome, he thought they were nuts. Then, pretty much everyone thought Coburn and Martin were nuts.

Everybody knows the story of Chrome by now -- Coburn and Martin bought an $8,000 mare named Love That Chase, a horse so helpless on the race track that they were called dumbasses for buying her (they would soon name their stable Dumbass Partners). Coburn and Martin paid a $2,500 stud fee -- that’s about as low a stud price as you can find -- for an almost unknown horse named Lucky Pulpit. What many people didn't know is that they first tried to breed Love That Chase to a different horse named Reddatore, but it didn't take.

WATCH: California Chrome: The Unlikely Champion

"What happens if they had been able to breed Love That Chase to Reddatore?" I ask Art Sherman.

"We're not here talking," Sherman says with a big smile on his face.

So add it up: An $8,000 mare, a breeding that didn’t take, and a bargain-basement stud fee -- this does not seem like much of a Kentucky Derby blueprint. And yet, Coburn and Martin seemed utterly sure that their horse, California Chrome, would not only run in the Kentucky Derby but would win it. Through his years as a trainer, Sherman had grown used to clients with big dreams and unrealistic expectations but these two were in their own category. They were like the couple that buys one lottery ticket and starts house hunting in expectation of winning.

But, hey, Sherman will tell you -- he’s seen all kinds. And these guys, well, God or Fortune or Lady Luck was watching over them. Heck, choosing Art Sherman to train Chrome was a crazy long-shot bet -- Sherman had developed a good reputation as a successful trainer in California (his horses have won more than 2,300 races; other trainers like Bob Baffert have long respected him), but he’d never trained anything close to a Kentucky Derby contender.

“You know what I would do?” he asks. “I would watch the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown races because I’m a fan of the sport. And I would say to myself: ‘How the heck does somebody get one of THOSE horses?'”

Sherman won't exaggerate the Chrome story for drama -- he didn’t see future greatness. He never does. Coburn has said he saw this horse in his dreams and knew Chrome was destined for greatness. Sherman? Nah. The first two years, he saw a good horse with some promise. That’s the most he ever allows himself to see.

But Kentucky Derby? Triple Crown? Are you kidding? Who even thinks like that? Through the years, Sherman has had all kinds of horses with all kinds of talent and the one thing he has learned about them -- you don’t know how they’ll run until you see them run.

WATCH: Odds accurate for Chrome?  |  Belmont preview  |  Jockey ready to work

"I've had horses that could fly in the morning," Sherman says. "And they disappeared in the afternoon."

Then, last December -- after some good races and mediocre ones -- he was training California Chrome for the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park. And something happened. It was real. Sherman had come to believe that you can teach a horse many things but you can never teach one how to compete. That, he says, is either inside or it isn't. Leading up to King Glorious, he saw Chrome start competing. He no longer wanted to be one of the horses. He wanted, clearly, to be the fastest.

"You know something?" Sherman told Coburn. "You just might have a special one here."

"He's special," Coburn assured him.

Chrome won the King Glorious by six lengths. Next time out, he won the California Cup at Santa Anita by five lengths. And he won the San Felipe by seven.

Suddenly Art Sherman found himself in a place he'd never been -- he was training a horse that seemed unlimited. He thought he’d seen everything. He’d ridden. He’d trained. He’d raised two sons, Alan and Steve, who followed him into the horse business. As a trainer he finally made a little bit of money, enough to take Faye on cruises all over the world. He saw Israel. He saw Russia. He saw Paris.

But this was different. Chrome was something different. Every question he asked, Chrome answered. Every challenge, Chrome met. Before the Derby, he heard whispers among the more established Kentucky Derby trainers -- they thought he was a rube, they thought Chrome was a California mirage.

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“I may not know much,” Sherman says. “But I knew Chrome was special.”

And then, some 60 years after he left the barbershop to chase the crazy dream of being a jockey, he became the oldest trainer to ever win the Kentucky Derby. Then the Preakness. Now, perhaps, the Belmont. Fame. Fortune. Respect. Love.

"People keep saying, 'This will change your life,'" Sherman says. "I don't know. Maybe it will change my life. But it won't change me. I'm too old to change."

* * *

Every morning, bright and early, Art Sherman wears his Kentucky Derby cap and he stands on that wooden deck at Los Alamitos and he watches his horses run. He has 16 of them now, including a couple of promising new ones. That’s enough. He doesn't want one of those mega barns where he can't keep up. He wants to know the horses individually. That's the fun of it.

People ask him all the time when he will quit. They don’t understand: He can’t quit. No, literally, he can’t quit. His body won’t let him. At 4:30 every morning, he's wide awake, and his body longs to be outside. At 5:30 a.m., he needs to see his horses. At 6 or so, his eyes search for the sunrise. It is more than habit -- it's a part of him now.

“Look at her,” he says, and he points out a 2-year-old filly running. To the untrained eye, she looks more or less like every other horse out there. Maybe she has a little bit more grace as she runs. Maybe.  "She's going to be a good one,” he says. “I think she has the heart. She's going to be a good one."

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He's surrounded by his kind of people, horse people, and the track smells like cut grass and coffee, and it sounds like small talk. Sometimes, people come up to Art to congratulate him or wish him luck or ask him to try their product. Some express how much they hope Chrome wins the Belmont. "Everybody does," Art says. "He's America's horse now."

"Will you be nervous?" someone asks him.

"At that start," he says. "My horse, Chrome, he's what you call a head-turner. He likes to look around when he's in the starting gate. You get a horse that looks around, sometimes he can get left at the gate. But he got off to great starts at the Derby and Preakness. I'll be nervous at the start. The first 70 yards. If gets those ..."

Art shrugs. He thinks Chrome is going to win the Belmont. He does not think the Triple Crown is especially fair -- he thinks there should be a month between the races, and owners should not be allowed to enter fresh horses into the Belmont -- but he thinks Chrome is simply better than all that now. He thinks the Triple Crown is California Chrome’s destiny now.

What he doesn’t say is this: It’s his destiny, too. It began in a barbershop. He beat Arcaro. He made a living. He lost some, but he won his share. And here, in the later years, he can still go to the track and watch his horses run. Saturday, he will go to the track and watch his greatest horse, California Chrome, run, and if he wins there will be celebrations set off and books written and movies.

"It's one helluva story," Art Sherman says. He’s talking about Chrome. But he could be talking about himself too. "I wouldn't even have believed it if I didn't live it."

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski