If trainer Art Sherman seems surprisingly calm for a Triple Crown newcomer who figures to be saddling this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) favorite in California Chrome , some of that confidence traces to the solid racing foundation of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner.
While many trainers have reduced the number of starts for their top 2-year-olds, California Chrome enters this year's Derby with seven races as a juvenile and a total of 10 starts. No Derby favorite in this century has boasted more 2-year-old starts than California Chrome. The most recent Derby favorite with more juvenile starts is filly Excellent Meeting (an entry with General Challenge in 1999), who raced eight times as a 2-year-old.
Sherman believes the road to the Derby can be taxing on horses without solid foundations.
"They all run a mile-and-an-eighth prior to running in the Derby," Sherman said. "I just think that being seasoned and not having to do a whole lot of training prior to the Derby, I think is a big benefit."
Sherman said a less-experienced horse might need longer workouts to prepare for the Derby and if a horse who may already be playing catch-up is thrown off his workout schedule by rain or an off-track, it can be a real setback.
The previous two Derby winners, Orb and I'll Have Another , had a combined seven starts at 2. Orb, sent off as the favorite in the Louisville classic, started four times as a juvenile, all in maiden races. I'll Have Another, like California Chrome a Santa Anita Derby winner, started just three times at age 2 and earned a maiden win and grade II-placing.
While that type of approach has worked in recent years, Sherman would not trade the experience California Chrome gained last year in winning three of seven races, including two stakes. He suspects sometimes trainers with less experienced horses feel like they are playing catch-up going into the Derby.
"I think the pattern that we used this time is going to be very beneficial to us," Sherman said.
That experience also influenced Sherman's decision to conduct California Chrome's final serious workouts at Los Alamitos. With jockey Victor Espinoza on board, California Chrome handily worked four furlongs in :47 4/5 on Monday, April 19 and he is scheduled to have his final move there on April 26.
Sherman was an exercise rider for 1955 Derby winner Swaps and as a trainer has saddled several starters at Churchill, including Siren Lure in the 2006 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) and Ultra Blend in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I). For the final serious preparation, he is well aware of the possibility of rain in Kentucky and is counting on Southern California's typically sunny skies.
"I didn't want to take the chance of not having the right kind of surface to train on," Sherman said. "I've been (to Churchill) and I know what can happen. This way, he's going to have a beautiful track here at Los Alamitos. This is home ground and he's shipped all over to win, so I'm not worried about shipping and not running. He's run on three different racetracks already.
At Churchill Downs, the son of Lucky Pulpit will spend his time galloping and schooling when he arrives in Louisville on Monday, April 28.
"I think the demeanor of this horse means a whole lot," Sherman said. "He's not a horse who is afraid of strange things. He kind of adapts real easy. All I need to do is stand him in the gate and take him to the paddock."
Sherman is looking forward to the Derby where California Chrome will try to become the sixth favorite to win the classic in the past 15 years, joining the list of Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), and Orb (2013).
"I've been in the game a long time. I've always been one of those guys who thinks that if it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Sherman said. "I just want my horse to have a fair shake at it and have good racing lake. I'm sure he'll perform; he's a gutty little horse."
In other Derby news, trainer Mike Maker confirmed that Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes (gr. III) runner-up Harry's Holiday will be pointed to the Derby. Maker potentially could saddle three horses in the race as he also is pointing Vicar's in Trouble and General a Rod to the classic.