By Jennifer Smith Lexington Herald-Leader
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Art Sherman lives in a nice little house next to a picturesque golf course in San Diego.
From his porch, he can see men much younger than his 77 years chipping and putting happily along.
That retirement life is not for Art Sherman.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he said on Saturday night, after he became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby with California Chrome.
He was at a similar loss of what to do with himself on Saturday as he watched California Chrome with Victor Espinoza aboard cruise to a 1¾-length victory.
“This has to be the sweetest moment of my life,” he said. “To be my age and have something like this happen, what can you say?”
Sherman, who was a jockey for 23 years before becoming a trainer in 1980, is so superstitious that he doesn’t want anyone to say anything to him until his horse has crossed the finish line.
“One of my biggest beefs is when somebody grabs me and says, ‘You won it. You won it.’ And I’m like, ‘Please don’t say that, I’ve got 70 yards to go. Don’t say that.’”
But the final 16th of a mile in the Derby, Sherman said he knew.
He could feel it in every achy part of his 5-foot-2 frame that had been broken and beaten up from so many years of riding.
For a few seconds, he found himself wishing he was a jockey again, wishing he could ride that final 70 yards to the finish line.
Lifetimes have started and ended in the decades since Sherman rode a Derby winner, even if it was just in the mornings. Back then he was an 18-year-old exercise rider aboard Swaps.
He watched from the backside as Swaps won the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Sherman was young then and had no idea that Derby winners don’t enter and exit your life on a regular basis.
Nearly 60 years later, he was a winner again.
“This was a big moment for me today,” Sherman said. “This is what every trainer wants to win. You always have it in the back of your mind: Can I win the Kentucky Derby? And now my name will be up there. I feel really blessed.”
Sherman went to visit his old friend Swaps, buried at the Kentucky Derby Museum, on Thursday. He said a little prayer.
“I thought he was a super horse, Swaps, you know, had six world records at one time,” Sherman recalled from the visit to the graveside. “I said, ‘Hey, let me have half your talent, put into Chrome, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world.’”
And there he was on Saturday, the happiest guy at least at Churchill Downs.
Wearing a purple shirt and lavender boutonniere in honor of California Chrome, Sherman sat on the podium after the race looking a little bit shocked.
Out of the corner of his eye, he’d sneak little glances as the televisions nearby were replaying the race. He heaved a sigh of relief as the horse crossed the finish line first.
Then he wiped his eyes and smiled.
“This man has come full circle,” part owner Steve Coburn said of his trainer. “God bless you, Art, for doing what you’ve done for this horse.”
Sherman will return to his house next to the golf course. He’ll still be the same man running a “family affair” training operation with his sons and a groom he’s had working for him for more than 15 years.
“I’m just the same old Art Sherman,” he said Saturday, before adding, “except I won the Kentucky Derby.”