June 6, 2014 / 7:11 PM / 5 years ago

Patience pays off for California Chrome's trainer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As any horse trainer will testify, patience is not so much a virtue but an occupational hazard.

Jun 3, 2014; Elmont, NY, USA; Horse trainer Art Sherman prior to speaking at a press conference about the progress of California Chrome in preparation for the 2014 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

For Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer of Triple Crown contender California Chrome, his persistence has been put to the ultimate test, a wait of almost 60 years for his first great horse.

The son of a Brooklyn barber who fell in love with the racing game when he was a skinny teenager, Sherman did have an early brush with fame when he started out as a stablehand in California in the mid 1950s.

His job included working as an exercise rider and one of the horses he rode in training was Swaps, the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner. Sherman accompanied Swaps on the long train trip from the Golden State to Churchill Downs and even slept in the horse’s boxcar on a bed of straw.

Sherman watched in awe as Swaps won the Run for the Roses - and bought himself a pair of alligator skin boots with the money he won in betting - then set his sights on winning the race for himself.

In 1957, Sherman became a jockey, spending the next two decades in the saddle, but he never got to ride in the Derby.

In 1979, he quit riding and took out his trainer’s license, establishing a successful operation. Like his time in the irons, he won plenty of races but never had a horse good enough for the Derby or any of the Triple Crown races.

Then, at an age when he could easily have been retired, along came California Chrome, the horse he had been waiting for all those years.

After a slow start in which he won just two of his first six races, the colt has strung together six wins on the trot, including the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

If he wins Saturday’s Belmont Stakes in New York, he will become the first horse in 36 years, and just the 12th overall, to complete the elusive Triple Crown, a prospect that has whipped American race fans into a frenzy of excitement.

“When I won the Santa Anita Derby, I thought I’d always wanted to do that,” Sherman told Reuters. “Then when I won the Kentucky Derby, I said ‘wow, that is great.’

“Then when I won the Preakness, I had to pinch myself. So I don’t know what the hell I’ll do if I can win the Triple Crown because I’ll just be elated, I’ll be one of the guys in the history books.”

When California Chrome won the Derby, Sherman became the oldest trainer to prepare the winner of America’s most famous race but has kept true to his working-class roots.

Amidst all the hype, he took some time out to visit an old friend, stopping by the grave site in the garden behind the Kentucky Derby Museum, where Swaps is buried.

And despite the temptation to soak up the spotlight, he has spent most of the past month back in California, looking after the stable’s other horses and allowing his son Alan to take care of California Chrome.

He arrived in the Big Apple this week to put the finishing touches to California Chrome ahead of Saturday’s race but said even if he lost on Saturday, the long wait has been worth it.

“You’ve got to have a special horse to win the Triple Crown, that’s why you haven’t seen very many do it,” he said.

“But he has nothing more to prove to me, he’s on a six race winning streak and I just can’t tell you how proud of him.

“Win lose or draw, he’ll still be my horse.”

Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Gene Cherry

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