California Chrome, the horse seeking to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, has a number of ties to the Bay Area, but none are stronger than his bond with Art Sherman.

Chrome's 77-year-old trainer, Sherman spent some 40 years at Bay Area tracks as a jockey and a trainer, and the many people he befriended -- jockeys, horsemen, track employees, fans -- are thrilled by the ride Sherman is on.

"I guess they still consider me one of their own," said Sherman, who migrated south about a dozen years ago to try his hand against stiffer competition. "That's not surprising, because I still have so many friends up that way. I still have a house in San Mateo, and a condo near my son (Steve, a longtime Golden Gate Fields trainer) in Point Richmond. So I still consider it home."

And Sherman calls home every weekend. Since before the Kentucky Derby, which Chrome won with ease, Sherman has been phoning in to KNBR as a guest on "At the Track," a show hosted by Sam Spear every Sunday morning. Sherman thinks it might be a good-luck charm.

"I think I've been on six weeks in a row now," Sherman said, chuckling. "The way I look at it, if it's not broken, don't fix it."

Better than Hollywood

Win or lose in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, where California Chrome is the 3-5 favorite, Sherman is sustaining the dream for grass roots horsemen across the nation, particularly in the Bay Area.

"Here's a guy who's got one horse," said Steven Specht, a longtime GGF trainer. "When one guy is winning with one little California-bred colt, it's pretty special."


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As former trainer and current jockey agent Fordell Fierce said: "If they wrote it as a movie, nobody would believe it."

"Even if it wasn't my dad," Steve Sherman said, "I think everybody would have the same joy for this story."

Before the Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Art Sherman's biggest achievement since becoming a trainer in 1979 was Chrome's triumph in the Santa Anita Derby. He has had a lot of good horses, including graded stakes winners such as longtime Bay Area favorite Lykatill Hil in the 1990s, but nothing approaching this.

Even though he said he's doing as many as six media interviews a day, Sherman is a modest, flannel-and-jeans guy who has been plugging away in relative anonymity for decades. His wife, Faye, who worked in the Bay Meadows gift shop for 30 years, had to buy him a suit to wear to the Kentucky Derby.

As unlikely as Sherman's story is, his operation in the Bay Area always was larger than one horse. He trained as many as 50-60 horses in his heyday battling perennial leading trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Sherman's barn in Southern California, headquartered at the comparatively humble Los Alamitos track, is smaller, with fewer than 20 horses.

But for as long as he has been around racetracks -- 60 years now -- Sherman has a reputation as one of the most respected and likable men in the business.

"I rode a bunch of winning races for Art," Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze said. "Dealing with him as a rider, he was so easy to get along with. He was also knowledgeable about what kind of horses he had. He knew what to expect in any given race. And what's happening now, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."

'A gifted horse'

Chrome's co-owner Steve Coburn was drawn to Sherman's "old school" approach, which Sherman said he formed by picking the brains of old-timers at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. Basically, he said it's about keeping a horse healthy, happy and well fed. Coburn and Perry Martin, Chrome's other co-owner, also were impressed that all the horses in Sherman's stable got individual attention from the man himself and his younger assistant Alan, his other son.

But who could have predicted such a fairy tale alliance by a group of horsemen operating under the label "Dumb Ass Partners?"

Sherman didn't. Two years ago, he received a text message from the two owners offering him the chance to train a "Derby hopeful." Chrome had never run a race. Sherman laughed, having had many such offers, but he accepted this time because he took a liking to Coburn and Martin.

"He's just a gifted horse; I got lucky to train him," Sherman said. "It happens every once in awhile, and it's good for racing. They're so few and far between, but if one comes by, you can get lucky and go all the way."

Sherman hasn't been this close to a great horse since he was an exercise rider for Swaps, one of the all-time great thoroughbreds who won the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Sherman, then 18, rode in a boxcar with Swaps and slept on a bed of hay next to him on a five-day trip from California to Louisville, Kentucky.

California Chrome's lineage has a distant link to Swaps, and Sherman thinks there's some karma in that. He even visited Swaps' grave before the Kentucky Derby win as a subtle way of saying thanks.

"It's a mom and pop type story," he said. "It shows you don't have to be a billionaire or a multimillionaire to have a big horse. Even some breeders in Maryland came up to me and thanked me for being a spokesman for the little guy."

To be sure, Sherman has already made significant history. He's playing with house money now, but winning the Belmont would take that history to a stratospheric level.

Chasing history

Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, and there have been 11 tries since Affirmed swept in 1978. Some great horses have failed -- Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence and Smarty Jones among them -- and the 36-year gap is the longest ever.

Moreover, a California-bred horse has never won the Triple Crown. Only a handful of Cal-breds have even won a piece. The last one to win the Belmont was Africander ... in 1903.

Sherman thinks his horse will make history. He's fit and feisty after shipping from Pimlico. "But he's already done everything he could for me, even if he doesn't win it," Sherman said.

Three thousand miles away from Belmont Park, Sherman will have all the women at Golden Gate Fields in their "Chromie" hats -- and most everyone else -- pulling hard for him. The horse might not be the Bay Area's own, but the man saddling him is.

GETTY images
Art Sherman, with California Chrome before the Preakness Stakes, says of the Bay Area, "I still consider it home."


INSIDE
Experts at Golden Gate Fields size up favorite's chances. PAGE 6