Trainer Art Sherman knows the comparisons are unavoidable. His brilliant colt California Chrome, early favorite for the Grade I, $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 5, is California-bred, chestnut in color, and, most importantly— can run like the wind. Sherman, 77, was well acquainted with another chestnut colt some 59 years ago who met all of the afore mentioned descriptions with a whirlwind of brilliance that left the racing world in awe.
Photo: Courtesy of Santa Anita Park
His name was Swaps. With 18-year-old exercise boy Sherman in-tow, “The California Comet,” as he was known, followed up a sensational win in the Santa Anita Derby and traveled from his Hollywood Park base to Churchill Downs where he defeated the mighty Nashua to win the 1955 Kentucky Derby with Willie Shoemaker aloft.
Trained by Mesh Tenney and bred in California by his owner, Rex Ellsworth, Swaps, by Khaled and out of a granddaughter of Triple Crown Champion War Admiral named Iron Reward, had breathtaking early speed and the ability to carry it a mile and a quarter and beyond. Named Horse of the Year at age four in 1956, Swaps at one time held five world records and was inducted into The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1966.
A California-bred colt by Lucky Pulpit, California Chrome was sent to the lead for the first time and went on to a dominating 7 ¼ length win in the Grade II, 1 1/16 miles San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 8. A winner of five of his nine starts, he obviously has a mountain to climb before he begins to attain the stature of Swaps, who prior to Spectacular Bid, was often referred to by Shoemaker as the best horse he ever rode.
“I’ll say this, they’re similar in their running style and the way they move,” said Sherman, who now bases his training operation some 30 miles south of Santa Anita at Los Alamitos Racecourse. “Swaps was a little bigger than this colt and he didn’t have four white stockings like California Chrome. This horse has a big white blaze and Swaps had a little white star. Truthfully, Swaps was a better horse at age four than he was at three.
“I remember he (Swaps) was still pretty green when he won the Santa Anita Derby, but he was just a freak. The thing about California Chrome is that he’s getting better and better with each start. His win here in the Cal Cup (Derby, on Jan. 25) was super, but the way he left those horses behind in the San Felipe just took your breath away.
“I came out to check on him early the next morning and you’d have never known that he’d just run a mile and a sixteenth like he did. We’re hoping this colt is on his way, but he’s got a long way to go to catch Swaps at this point.
"I know there’s always a question until they’ve done it, but I really think this horse will go a mile and a quarter, no problem. He’s doing everything right and we’re looking forward to running him here in the (Santa Anita) Derby. It is getting a little scary though, with all the comparisons and now he’s the future book favorite (for the Kentucky Derby, May 3). I had to laugh. He opened up at 300-1, now he’s 5-1.”
Prior to his San Felipe score, California Chrome had only one graded stakes appearance on his resume—a much troubled sixth place run in the Grade I, seven furlong Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 4. A review of the race suggests the son of Lucky Pulpit may have been best that day when ridden by Alberto Delgado.
Owned by his breeders, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, California Chrome has banked $534,850 and with Victor Espinoza aboard, he’s won his last three races; the seven furlong King Glorious Stakes, the 1 1/16 miles Cal Cup Derby and the 1 1/16 miles San Felipe, by a combined 19 lengths.
Breaking like a shot, California Chrome took the lead in the San Felipe and never looked back.
“I wanted to try something new today, so I let him go right out of the gate,” said Espinoza. “I don’t know if people expected me to go right to the lead, but I wanted to let him enjoy his race—I just let him go…”
And, Art Sherman is hoping to “let go” again in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 5. Following that, if the racing gods permit, Sherman hopes to return some 59 years after Swaps took Louisville by storm, to again smell the Roses with yet another California-bred on the first Saturday in May.